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Ten Commandments replaced by empty frames as fight heats up against ACLU lawsuit

LONDON, Ky. (BP)–Although three counties in southeastern Kentucky have removed the Ten Commandments from public property, their new attorney believes they will prevail in their fight to post the historic principles.

Although U.S. District Judge Jennifer Coffman ordered the displays removed on May 5, the counties didn’t take the documents down until May 17. On May 18, the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati refused to grant a stay of Coffman’s ruling.

However, a Florida-based religious liberty organization that just entered the case had already planned to withdraw the appeal to press the matter further in the eastern Kentucky court.

“This case is far from over,” said Erik Stanley, litigation counsel for Liberty Counsel, a Christian group based in Orlando. “We need to go back to district court to make our chances stronger for a trial. We intend to go forward with the case and fully intend to win it. We feel we have some strong arguments to make.

“These cases are going on all over the country,” he added. “But this is the furthest along and has the potential to be a precedent-setting case. It’s interesting that it’s being brought back [here]. Kentucky has been battling this since 1980 and it’s still the battleground.”

Stanley’s comment referred to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling known as Stone v. Graham. It invalidated state legislation requiring the Ten Commandments to be posted in public schools.

Despite that ruling, in recent times states and local jurisdictions have resumed postings of the Mosaic law. In Kentucky, they included the courthouses in McCreary and Pulaski counties and Harlan County schools, where empty frames are to be hung on school walls to represent the religious and historic documents that were removed, according to news reports.

The American Civil Liberties Union sued the three counties late last year. Although they later added other historic documents to the displays, Coffman ruled they did not meet legal criteria.

Still, Stanley believes the defendants will emerge victorious, whether at the trial level or on appeal. He said previous rulings have upheld Ten Commandments exhibits in a historical context.

“The Supreme Court has said religious symbols can be displayed properly on public property,” he said. “We’re going forward on that point. In the proper context they are constitutional and the court would be in error to rule otherwise.”

The context has been a key point in court rulings, added John Stepanovich, senior counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice in Virginia Beach, Va.

The ACLJ is representing the Adams County, Ohio, school board, which was sued in 1998 by the ACLU for posting the Ten Commandments outside four county high schools. After the civil liberties group filed a motion for summary judgment, the school board voted May 16 to add four other documents to the displays.

They include the Magna Carta, the Roman law of individuals’ rights known as the Justinian Code, the Declaration of Independence and the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution. Stepanovich said experts will testify these documents, and the Ten Commandments, form the basis of American law and government.

The displays should be up this summer and Stepanovich hopes they will lead to dismissal of the lawsuit.

“The ACLU is saying it’s unconstitutional because it’s up there by itself,” he said. “We’re saying it’s [legal] within the context. We hope the court will take the display into effect before ruling on the motion.”

While the general counsel for the ACLU in Kentucky agreed that certain displays are legal, he argued that the three counties failed to meet that standard. Louisville attorney David Friedman said the key is their purpose and effect.

For example, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of a nativity scene in a park in Pawtuckett, R.I., because the display included Santa Claus, reindeer and other secular symbols, he said.

But, Friedman said, it invalidated the display of a creche in a courthouse stairwell in Pittsburgh. He said a reasonable observer would conclude the nativity occupied that space with the knowledge and approval of the government.

“So, yes, context matters,” the lawyer said. “But what that means is in a context in which the religious component of the display is not the focus of the exhibit. You have to look at it, for the purpose of seeing whether it’s an endorsement of religion. We’ve argued, and successfully so far, that these displays aren’t close to the line.”

The argument has inflamed passions on both sides of the issue. McCreary County Judge-Executive Jimmie Green vowed to resign or go to jail before he would take the Ten Commandments off his courthouse wall.

In its May 18 editions, the Louisville Courier-Journal included a front-page photograph of Greene praying with 10 members of a local American Legion post. The veterans took the document to their headquarters in Stearns.

The county government official told the newspaper he didn’t break his word. “Jimmie Green didn’t take them down,” he said. “The American Legion didn’t want me to go to jail and they didn’t want me to resign.”

The Louisville paper also reported that Harlan County schools will hang empty frames on school walls to represent the religious and historic documents that were removed.

While the counties’ initial refusal to obey the ruling threatened to create further confrontations, Friedman said he was pleased that officials followed the judge’s directive.

“Any time you have people complying with court orders, it’s good for the system,” he said.

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  • Ken Walker