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Commandments may remain on courthouse, appeals court rules

PHILADELPHIA, Pa. (BP)–A display of the Ten Commandments may remain on a Pennsylvania county courthouse, a federal appeals court ruled June 26.

The decision by a three-judge panel was rooted in the plaque’s historic nature. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals panel ruled the plaque, which was given to the courthouse by a private group and placed on an exterior wall in 1920, may remain displayed on the Chester County courthouse because it does not endorse religion and has a secular purpose.

“[T]he reasonable observer would perceive the plaque as a part of an historic monument, namely the courthouse itself,” wrote judge Edward Becker for all three members of the panel. “Viewed in this context, the commissioners’ refusal to remove the plaque appears even less like an endorsement of religion and more likely motivated by the desire to preserve a plaque that has become part of the courthouse.”

The county commissioners refused in 2001 a request to remove the plaque from the building, which is located in West Chester, Pa. Sally Flynn, a Chester County resident, and the Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia sued in federal court and won.

The Third Circuit panel acknowledged other federal appeals courts have split the last two years over public display of the Ten Commandments. The 10th Circuit upheld the use of an official seal that includes the Ten Commandments, but the Sixth and Seventh circuits ruled such displays on the grounds of government buildings are unconstitutional.

The panel said neither of the latter two decisions was “particularly instructive” related to its case. It also said neither of those courts “addressed the argument that history could provide a context which could change the effect of the overall display on a reasonable observer.”

The bronze plaque, which is about three feet by four feet, was located next to the entrance of the courthouse until a few years ago. When the courthouse was expanded, the old entrance was closed. The plaque has remained by the closed entrance.

The case is Freethought Society v. Chester County.

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