Attorney: Sullivan County Ten Commandments display would be hard to defend
August 27, 2003 Times-News
Update 2015: there have been no further developments on this issue.
By J.H. OSBORNE
BLOUNTVILLE - Dan Street says he will defend Sullivan County's display of the Ten Commandments if that's what the Sullivan County Commission wants him to do.
But Street, the county attorney, said Tuesday he doesn't think it likely the display would survive a legal challenge. "In my opinion, there is a high degree of probability that if we are challenged in court with regard to Sullivan County's display of the Ten Commandments ... we will be ordered to remove it," Street wrote in a memorandum to County Mayor Richard Venable.
Displays of the Ten Commandments on public property have been challenged across the South in recent months - including three other sites in Tennessee and a case in Alabama. Court rulings ended displays in Tennessee's Hamilton and Rutherford counties last year. The American Civil Liberties Union has threatened legal action this year seeking removal of a display in Shelby County.
In Montgomery, Ala., the fight over a Ten Commandments display at the state's judicial building has drawn national attention this week. Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore has been ordered to remove a Ten Commandments monument he installed in the building's rotunda.
A federal judge has held it violates the Constitution's ban on government promotion of religious doctrine and gave Moore a deadline of last Wednesday to remove it.
As of Tuesday, with supporters of the display marching outside the building, he had not. Street said every case challenging display of the Ten Commandments raises awareness of the issue - and increases the likelihood Sullivan County will have to make a decision on whether to fight a call to remove its plaque.
"The noose seems to tighten more in every case that comes down,'' Street told the Times-News Tuesday afternoon. Each court ruling against such a display is "a loss for people wanting to hang the Ten Commandments," Street said. "It's becoming clearer and clearer and clearer you can't do that." The Sullivan County Commission voted in September 1998 to allow a Ten Commandments display at the County Courthouse.
At the time, a plaque bearing the Ten Commandments on the front of the Washington County Courthouse was being challenged by a local woman. The resolution approved in Sullivan County stated the commission "embraces the foundation on which it and the United States were founded; and ... our foundation is supported by three key historical documents which should be publicly displayed as a reminder to elected officials and the citizens; and ... we must preserve our heritage for future generations by acknowledging and recognizing such documents."
Sullivan County's plaque, paid for by donations raised through the Sullivan County Baptist's Association, features the Ten Commandments flanked by the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights.
The County Commission's vote that day was to allow the posting of "historical documents" in the County Courthouse. Requests by residents to post additional "historical documents" have been approved twice in the years since. One, citing "In God We Trust" as the national motto of the United States, hangs in the courthouse. The second, Thomas Jefferson's "Virginia Statute of Religious Freedoms," does not. Yet. Street said it was approved, but no plaque has been provided by the person who made the request.
The September 1998 vote was seen by some as a sign of support for Sullivan's neighboring county. "I think this is in support of Washington County," then-Commissioner Jim Blalock said at the time. "'The intent is to support them. It will probably be challenged. I don't know how far it will go. I think we will have to abide by whatever decision is made in Washington County."
The challenge by Tennessee Director of American Atheists Carletta Sims of Washington County's courthouse display of the Ten Commandments and the possibility of a similar challenge of such a display in Sullivan County - was not a concern, some commissioners said after the vote. "We'll give Mrs. Sims something to do, to keep her busy," said Commissioner Wayne McConnell.
"I don't really care," Commissioner Mark Vance said. "If I'm going to be sued, that's the way I want to be sued - over the right thing. There's something I don't understand. You go to the PTA meeting at the school, and they can pray there, but they won't allow you to have prayer inside the school for your children."
Vance said the possibility of Sims challenging the commission's vote held no sway over him. "I'll tell her in a hurry where she's going and where she can go," Vance said. It's comments like those, Street said, that could hurt Sullivan County's standpoint in court. In Rutherford County, Street said, "They did basically the same thing" as the Sullivan County Commission, and "they lost there."
The judge in that case reviewed statements made by commissioners there and ruled their intent was not to display historical documents so much as it was to display the Ten Commandments for religious reasons, Street said.
"What he found was that they packaged the Ten Commandments with a few side items to try and cover it up," Street said. "But he went back and showed evidence in the history of the (approval) to show what they were doing was trying to hang the Ten Commandments, and they were trying to hang other documents with it just to protect what they were doing."
"To me it seems perfectly clear that a governmental entity cannot post the Ten Commandments for the purpose of attempting to influence the public," Street wrote in the memo to Venable.
Street said he sent similar memos to Venable and county commissioners last year as the Rutherford County and Hamilton County cases unfolded. To date, Street said, he's not gotten any official response from commissioners. "None,'' Street said.
"On a positive side," Street wrote in the memo to Venable, "two characteristics in our situation could be argued to distinguish Sullivan County from others (who have lost fights to keep Ten Commandments displays):
- Sullivan County has a procedure in place for other historical documents to be posted.
- Sullivan County has actually already approved (an) application to post "The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom," which supports religious freedom and the separation of church and state.
Copyright 2003 Kingsport Times-News.
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