News Articles

ACLU suit targets Ten Commandments voted by lawmakers for Ky. capitol

FRANKFORT, Ky. (BP)–A lawsuit to block a 7-foot-tall Ten Commandments monument from the Kentucky capitol grounds has been filed by the American Civil Liberties Union.

The July 10 ACLU filing takes aim at a resolution passed by the Kentucky legislature slated to take effect July 15 to permanently display the monument just behind the capitol building in Frankfort.

An ordained Southern Baptist minister, Democratic Rep. Tom Riner of Louisville, authored the amended version of the legislation that eventually was passed in April by state lawmakers.

Meanwhile, a minister identified by the ACLU as James Jerrell Greenlee, with credentials in both the Southern Baptist and American Baptist conventions, was one of three Protestant ministers (the others being a United Methodist and a Presbyterian) and a rabbi who are plaintiffs for the lawsuit, which was filed in U.S. District Court in Frankfort.

Riner described the ACLU lawsuit as “part of their systematic campaign over the course of 30 years to denigrate God in the classroom and public life,” in comments quoted by the Louisville Courier-Journal.

“They [the ACLU] are going to continue in the courtroom, basically, until they succeed in the emasculation of any heritage that has spiritual roots,” Riner told the newspaper.

Courts in four states have upheld Ten Commandments postings in public places, Riner told the Lexington Herald-Leader, predicting that Kentucky’s law can also withstand a court challenge.

Kentucky has been a Ten Commandments battleground since 1980, when the U.S. Supreme Court’s Stone v. Graham decision invalidated state legislation requiring Ten Commandments postings in public schools.

“This [legislation] is not an attempt to promote religion. It’s an attempt to educate people as to the origins of our laws,” Riner told the Lexington newspaper. “We want our children and our children’s children to know that these laws didn’t just come from thin air.”

The legislation, Senate Joint Resolution 57, calls for the Ten Commandment monument’s placement at the capitol “in order to remind Kentuckians of the Biblical foundations of the laws of the Commonwealth.”

Greenlee, the Baptist plaintiff, was not quoted by either of the newspapers nor in an ACLU news release about the lawsuit.

The ACLU news release called the legislative action a violation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which forbids government from endorsing or favoring religion. The suit seeks an order to prevent the monument’s placement at the statehouse.

“The placement of the Ten Commandments monument at a central location on the capitol grounds is no accident,” Kathleen Flynn, one of the volunteer ACLU lawyers handling the case, said in the news release. “The legislature chose to place religious text next to the Floral Clock as a way of endorsing that text.”

“This legislation must be viewed in context,” David Friedman, the ACLU of Kentucky’s general counsel, said in the news release. “It was enacted after the ACLU of Kentucky sued local governments to prevent them from placing the Ten Commandments on courthouse and school walls. The legislature clearly was taking sides in that debate, choosing the endorsement of religious texts over American principles forbidding government from doing so.”

In a May 5 ruling on an ACLU lawsuit, U.S. District Judge Jennifer Coffman ordered Ten Commandments displays removed from public sites in three southeastern Kentucky counties. The counties didn’t take the documents down until May 17. The U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati refused to grant a stay of Coffman’s ruling on May 18.

Empty frames were put up in Harlan County schools in response to Coffman’s ruling, which also affected Ten Commandments displays in the courthouses of McCreary and Pulaski counties.

The Lexington paper quoted Hershael York, a professor of preaching at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, as saying that the clergymen and rabbi in the ACLU lawsuit don’t represent typical Kentucky churchgoers.

“There’s no question that the average grassroots Southern Baptist would be in favor of posting the Ten Commandments,” York told the newspaper.

The rabbi involved in the lawsuit, Jonathan Adland, of Temple Adath Israel in Louisville, meanwhile told the newspaper, “Religion is a matter of the heart and soul and it should be celebrated and observed in religious institutions and in the home. The state has no business being involved in this.”

The rabbi also stated, “The Ten Commandments are not universal,” saying they are not revered by Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims.

The monument was a gift from the Fraternal Order of Eagles in 1971 and has been in storage since the late 1980s.

In other Ten Commandments-type controversies around the country:

— The U.S. House, in a 333-27 vote June 27 with 66 other congressmen voting “present,” registered support for Ohio’s state motto, “With God, all things are possible,” which a 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel ruled in violation of the Constitution by a 2-1 vote in April in response to an ACLU lawsuit. Ohio has appealed the ruling to the full court.

“Political correctness has run rampant,” Rep. Mike Oxley, R.-Ohio, chief sponsor of the nonbinding resolution, H.Res. 494, said of the federal panel’s decision. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, meanwhile complained, “This is shameless political grandstanding.” The motto, adopted in 1959, became an issue in 1997 when then-Gov. George Voinovich decided to etch it on a bronze plaque at the front of the statehouse.

— Colorado’s Board of Education voted July 6 to recommend the posting of “In God We Trust,” the motto on U.S. currency since 1864, in the state’s schools. “How long can we remain a free nation if our youth don’t have civic virtue?” board chairman Clair Orr was quoted by the Associated Press as saying. The motto was adopted in a 5-1 vote in a board meeting that began with a prayer. Sue Armstrong, executive director of the ACLU of Colorado, told the AP she will wait until the motto is posted in schools before deciding on legal action.

— The ACLU filed suit June 22 against a newly enacted Virginia law requiring public schools to begin each day with a minute of silence for students to “meditate, pray or engage in other silent activity.”

“Every Virginia legislator knows the purpose of this law,” Kent Willis, executive director of ACLU of Virginia, charged in a news release. “It is an attempt to put state-sanctioned prayer back in our public schools, and that is both shameful and unconstitutional.”