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ACLU suit, federal judge force county to remove Ten Commandments in Indiana

WASHINGTON (BP)–Threatened by fines, residents of a small town in Indiana say they were forced to remove a monument displaying the Ten Commandments from the lawn of the local courthouse after a federal judge ruled on behalf of the state’s civil liberties union.

“We were ordered to take it down, we were given five days to take it down, or the county was going to be fined $1,000 every day it wasn’t taken down and each commissioner, $200 a day,” Tim Terry, president of the Lawrence County Commission in Bedford, Ind., told the Internet news site CNSNews.com.

U.S. District Judge Sarah Evans Barker issued the ruling Nov. 13, basing it on arguments set forth in an earlier case involving the same monument at the statehouse building in Indianapolis.

In that hearing, held this past July, Indiana Civil Liberties Union officials accused Democratic Gov. Frank O’Bannon of unlawfully endorsing religion on government property after he proclaimed his intent to display a limestone monument that included carvings of the Ten Commandments, the U.S. Bill of Rights and the preamble of the state’s constitution.

The limestone piece, which was still being built when the Indiana Civil Liberties Union filed its complaint, was similar to a 1958 monument that had been located on the lawn of the state capitol until 1992, when a protestor destroyed it, reportedly because of its religious overtones.

In 1995, state officials began looking for ways to replace the statehouse sculpture at minimal cost to the taxpayers. Before the volunteer stonecutters could finish their work, however, Baker ruled that the monument could not be returned to the public grounds.

That’s when Lawrence County commissioners, acting on the suggestion of state Rep Brent Steele, offered to temporarily house the monument outside their courthouse while the governor’s appeal process continued in an Illinois district court.

“The [Lawrence County] newspaper published an account of the minutes of that commissioners meeting” where they voted unanimously in favor of accepting the sculpture, Steele said, “and the ICLU sent a man down here … and they sued.”

Judge Barker — “bent out of shape because it was the same stone” she had just disallowed from the statehouse, Steele said — refused to consider the nearly 10,000 petitioners who signed a document in support of displaying the monument at the courthouse, ordering the county to remove it within five days or face stiff penalties.

The county’s attorneys are not suing, Steele said, because the state has already pursued a reversal of decision, to be heard at the U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago.

“It was never meant to be there [at the Lawrence County Courthouse permanently]. It was just temporary, until the state’s appeal was through … and I have faith that the Chicago court” will reverse Barker’s decision, Steele said.

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  • Cheryl K. Chumley