I recently heard some interesting news from my hometown in suburban Pittsburgh: A Ten Commandments monument that was the subject of a federal court battle has been removed from the grounds of a public high school.
New Kensington-Arnold School District in February reached a settlement to relocate the large stone monolith that had been donated to the school in the 1950s. Last week, for the first time in 60 years, the Ten Commandments no longer loomed over students walking past the front of Valley Junior-Senior High School.
As Americans United has noted innumerous times, religious displays like the Ten Commandments don’t belong on government property, particularly at public schools where impressionable children are especially susceptible to coercion and ostracism. Having the Ten Commandments on public property amounts to an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion, showing favoritism for one faith over others.
The removal of this particular Decalogue was of special interest to me because I wrote about this case while I was a reporter for the Valley News Dispatch. From the time the lawsuit was filed in 2012, through the appeals process over whether a local mom had standing to sue, and up to last fall when a settlement was brewing, I followed the case. So it’s a bit of a bummer that I didn’t get to write about the resolution.
But as I noted before, it was through this case that I learned about AU, which eventually led to me coming to work here in December. Back in 2015, Americans United filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Marie Schaub, the mom who challenged the school district’s monument on behalf of her minor daughter, a student in the district. A federal judge in Pittsburgh had ruled that Schaub and her daughter had not been sufficiently harmed by the monument to have standing to sue. Schaub appealed, AU and other allies stood up for her and the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in her favor and restored the lawsuit.
At that point, I think New Kensington-Arnold officials saw the writing on the wall. A similar monument at another western Pennsylvania school district was challenged in court by the Freedom From Religion Foundation at the same time the organization filed the New Kensington-Arnold case on behalf of Schaub. A federal judge deemed the Connellsville Area School District’s monument to be unconstitutional in 2015 and it was relocated. I’m no legal scholar, but it seemed likely New Kensington-Arnold’s monument would also be deemed unconstitutional.
The Ten Commandments don't belong on public school property.
The New Kensington-Arnold monument will be moved to the property of a nearby private Catholic school. Supporters of the monolith have boasted that the new location will make the Ten Commandments more visible than they were at the high school. But visibility was never the issue. Displaying the Decalogue at a Catholic school is appropriate and even expected; displaying it at a public high school is not.
While we’ll mark this in the “win” category for separation of church and state, the battle against sectarian displays at the seat of government continues across the country. Just last month, Nueces County officials in Texas declined AU’s request to remove a clearly unconstitutional Ten Commandments monument displayed at the county courthouse.
County officials told the Corpus Christi Caller-Times that because their monument looks like one the U.S. Supreme Court permitted to stand at the Texas state Capitol, they believe it is permissible. But as AU Staff Attorney Ian Smith explained, the Austin monument was permitted because it’s part of a monument garden that includes lots of symbols, some of which are secular.
“There are a ton of other nonreligious monuments surrounding the Ten Commandments (at the Capitol),” Smith told the Caller-Times. “When it’s not the focus of the display, it removes the Commandments’ religious message. By saying you have one that looks just like (the one at the Capitol), it’s not what the case says. It’s the most superficial reading of the case.”
AU’s Legal Department is continuing to try to work with county officials to get the monument removed. Stay tuned to au.org for more information on this issue.