The case of Freethought
Society of Greater Philadelphia and Sally Flynn v. Chester County,
Colin A. Hanna, Karen L. Martynick and Andrew E. Dinniman revolves
around a bronze tablet, 50 inches by 60 inches, posted at the entrance
to the county’s historic courthouse and engraved with the Ten Commandments.
Council of Religious Education of West Chester installed the plaque
at the courthouse in 1920 according to the Chester County Historical
County Commissioners Hanna, Martynick, and Dinniman were petitioned
in August 2001 to remove the plaque from the building by members of
the Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia, an organization of
atheists and agnostics who advocate freedom from religious intrusion.
October, a federal lawsuit was filed by a local Pennsylvania chapter
of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on behalf of the Society
when the county commissioners refused to remove the plaque.
plaintiffs (society members and the ACLU) claim that posting the Ten
Commandments on government property violates the U.S. Constitution’s
First and Fourteenth Amendments in the Chester County case, as well
as in dozens of current and past Ten Commandments suits filed against
school districts and local and state governments nationwide.
government is prohibited from endorsing a religion or barring worship
by the First Amendment, and equal protection under the law to all
United States (U.S.) citizens is guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.
ACLU legal Director
Stefan Presser said, “There’s a real struggle in this country between
those who believe we are best served by observing our religions in
private and those who believe in government supporting religion.”
officials, as in many similar cases, have replied that the plaque
serves a secular purpose as a historical monument or cultural document
representing American law roots.
County Assistant Solicitor Thomas Abrahamson said, “From what I’ve
seen the weight of public opinion seems to be, they’ve been there
80 years, they’re not hurting anyone, leave them up.”
inspired by religion awakenings, the public posting of the Ten Commandments
or other religious displays has taken place throughout American history. Stemming from early 20th century evangelical fervor was
this courthouse’s plaque. More
than a few displays were built by the anti-Communist crusades of the
1950’s. Recently, in an attempt to counteract what
they feared was a breakdown in moral values among the young, the 1999
shooting rampage at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado,
led many school boards to post the Commandments.
secularization groups questioned the constitutionality of the Ten
Commandments displays after the U.S. Supreme Court rulings in 1962
and 1963 that banned prayer and the reading of Bible passages in schools
have been the results of their challenges, including the reasons for
the displays, what the displays consist of, and where they are located.
Most of the cases have featured slight differences in their
situations. Many of these
cases never make it to the courtroom.
In order to avoid a lawsuit that
would financially break them, school boards in California and
Illinois have reversed decisions to post the Commandments in recent
to sidestep the controversies are made by others.
Bills that would allow the posting of Commandments in schools
and public buildings have been considered by lawmakers in the U.S.
House of Representatives and a handful of state legislatures.
Those enacted can still be challenged in court, and many efforts
1980 case of Stone v. Graham, in which the Supreme Court ruled
5-4 to strike down a 1978 Kentucky state law requiring the Ten Commandments
to be posted in public school classrooms, is often cited by the religious
opponents. The unsigned opinion read, “The pre-eminent
purpose for posting the Ten Commandments on schoolroom walls is plainly
religious in nature. The Ten
Commandments are undeniably a sacred text in the Jewish and Christian
faiths, and no legislative recitation of a supposed secular purpose
can blind us to that fact.
that same opinion allows the teaching of the Ten Commandments as part
of a balanced curriculum points out Ambrahamson.
Especially in terms of their primary audiences, cases about
the Commandments in school differ greatly from those about Commandments
in other government buildings he said.
Stone v. Graham, the Supreme Court has rarely ruled on the
Ten Commandments issue. The Supreme Court’s refusal to hear cases on
the issue is seen by some observers as a hesitance to engage itself
in the explosive issue that lies at America’s heart – church versus
state. However, the Supreme Court’s actions is interpreted
as an approval of the federal appeals court’s rulings by others.
Presser said, “They see no reason to give an further direction.
The lower courts got it right.”
the Supreme Court’s refusal to hear the case has limited importance
in the continuing issue argues Abrahamson.
He said, “As a legal precedent, it’s meaningless.”
Furthermore, an appeal involving the Colorado state house,
in which a federal appeals court allowed the Commandments to stay,
was also declined to be heard by the justices.
Even less definitive, are the conclusions allowing the display
of the Commandments in some parts of the country and not in others
in federal appeals court system, one step below the Supreme Court.
the limited scope of the case, it’s uncertain, though, what the impact
of the final decision will be. What
lasting effect the case will have on other communities is unknown
whether the plaque is allowed to stay or is removed from the Chester
County Courthouse. Abrahamson
views the Ten Commandments case as a meditation on America’s relationship
to their faith. However,
a much direr and freer picture is seen by Presser. He said, “The truth is, if anything, we have witnessed the end result
of religious extremism in the attack of September 11th
. We have been spared anything like that because
of the prohibition of established religion.”
Bernard, "Plaque debate goes to court,” The Daily Local News,
March 3, 2002)
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