Bronze Ten Commandments Tablet Being Challenged
in Pennsylvania

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.

The Council of Religious Education of West Chester installed the plaque at the courthouse in 1920 according to the Chester County Historical Society.

Chester 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.

In 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.

The 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.

The 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.”

County 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.

Chester 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.”

Often 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.

The 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 respectively.

Mixed 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 years.

Attempts 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 have failed.

The 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.

However, 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.

Since 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.” 

But, 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.

Given 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.”

(David Bernard, "Plaque debate goes to court,” The Daily Local News, March 3, 2002)

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