AU Challenges Display Of Ten Commandments In Washington State

A Washington city's display of a large granite Ten Commandments monument violates the constitutional separation of church and state, a lawsuit filed by Americans United July 23 asserts.

Americans United sued the city of Everett, Wash., in federal court, seeking a declaration that the monument, which sits in front of the city's police station, subverts the First Amendment principle of church-state separation, as well as the Washington State Constitution. The case was filed on behalf of Everett resident Jesse Card.

"Everett's display of a Ten Commanddments monument on public property is a blatant endorsement of religion," said Barry W. Lynn, American United executive director. "Americans are a diverse people, and government should never endorse one religious tradition over others. The Constitution forbids it, and respect for diversity demands it."

The nearly 7-foot-tall granite monument was donated to the city by the Fraternal Order of Eagles (FOE). It depicts two tablets, with an inscription that begins, "The Ten Commandments. I am the Lord thy God. Thou shalt have no other gods before me."

On several occasions, Americans United has urged city officials to remove the monument from public property. In June 2001, City Attorney Mark Soine announced that the city had no intention of doing so.

Federal courts have repeatedly ruled that the government may not display the Ten Commandments at public buildings. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to review a federal appeals court decision that said officials of Elkhart, Ind., could not keep a similar monument on the lawn of its town hall.

In refusing to review the federal appeals court decision, Justice John Paul Stevens noted that the monument's first two lines about the Lord and God are "rather hard to square with the proposition that the monument expresses no particular religious preference."

Americans United Legal Director Ayesha Khan urged Everett city officials to comply with the Constitution and federal court rulings on government displays of religious symbols.

"The city officials are recklessly ignoring constitutional strictures," Khan said. "Federal courts have said such displays of the Ten Commandments on public property are a promotion of religion."

Local officials have vowed to fight the Card v. City of Everett lawsuit.

"You could say anything is church and state," Ron Gipson, a member of the city council, told the Everett Herald. "We still refer to 'one nation under God' in the Pledge of Allegiance. I just can't see what the issue is."

In other news about Ten Commanddments displays:

A Ten Commandments plaque on the Chester County, Pa., courthouse has been upheld by a federal appeals court. A three-judge panel ruled unanimously June 26 that the plaque, which has been on the courthouse since 1920, mainly serves a historic purpose, not a religious one.

The legal challenge was brought by the Freethought Society of Greater Philaddelphia and the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania. Both groups have appealed, asking the entire 3rd U.S. Circuit Court panel to hear the case.

Shortly after that decision came down, a federal court in western Pennsylvania upheld a Commandments display at the Allegheny County Courthouse, ruling that the plaque has historic value.

That case, brought by Americans United, may also be taken to the federal appeals court for reconsideration of the issue.