Religious plaque on courthouse wall violates the Constitution, judge says


Diamond Member
May 1, 2001
A victory for freethinkers, religious minorities and anybody who values a secular society.

Link <- Includes pic of offending plaque

In what could become the Supreme Court's next chance to tackle the emotional debate over the Constitution's ban on government endorsement of religion, a federal judge yesterday ordered Chester County officials to remove a Ten Commandments plaque from a courthouse where it has hung since 1920.

In an opinion that came less than 24 hours after two days of trial in a lawsuit filed by Chester County atheist Sally Flynn, U.S. District Judge Stewart Dalzell rejected county officials' contention that the decalogue is so commonly known that it has lost its purely religious significance.

Dalzell, a 10-year veteran of the federal bench who was appointed by President George Bush, wrote that the decalogue on the courthouse exterior is plainly a Protestant Christian interpretation.

"The only plaque on the courthouse facade with any substantive content is the Ten Commandment tablet," Dalzell added. "With neither the Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence, the Mayflower Compact nor any other fundamental legal text flanking it, the tablet's necessary effect on those who see it is to endorse or advance the unique importance of this predominantly religious text for mainline Protestantism."

"I'm elated. I'm doing a little dance here," said Flynn, 72, a civil-rights activist. Flynn, who said she has been harassed since filing the lawsuit last year, added: "The only thing more stressful than this in my whole life was childbirth."

"It's the county law building and it doesn't need religious symbols on it," Flynn said.

One plaque supporter, Carris Kocher of Concordville, Delaware County, expressed disappointment when she learned of Dalzell's ruling.

"That's a tragic decision," she said, "and don't think that the Lord won't hold them accountable."

Speaking of Dalzell and referring to divine judgment, Kocher added: "I'd hate to be in his shoes, because there's another judge that he will face."

The immediate future of the plaque, donated by the Council of Religious Education of the Federated Churches of West Chester, is uncertain.

Stefan Presser, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Philadelphia office, which sued on behalf of Flynn and the Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia, said he would write immediately asking the county commissioners when they would comply with Dalzell's order.

Presser praised the ruling: "At a time when this nation has borne the hatred of religious fanatics from abroad, it is fitting that we can rededicate the gift that we were given 200 years ago."

Chester County Commissioner Colin A. Hanna said that he favored appealing the ruling but that the final decision was up to all three commissioners and their lawyers.

Any appeal would almost certainly stay Dalzell's order - and leave the plaque on the front wall of the 155-year-old courthouse - pending a final decision.

"It seems to me there is an increasing awareness of the need for the U.S. Supreme Court to readdress the matter of religious freedom and the role to be played by government in the context of the First Amendment," Hanna added.

Commissioner Karen Martynick, who also said she supported appealing, called the ruling a "sad day for Chester County. People are supportive of the plaque. They think it is part of the courthouse."

Margaret Downey, president and founder of the Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia, said she hoped the county did not appeal: "This has really divided our community."

Downey praised the ruling for upholding the rights of Chester County's atheists and religious minorities.

The Supreme Court's landmark decision interpreting the First Amendment's establishment clause was Lemon v. Kurtzman in 1990. The decision told trial judges to use a three-prong test to decide whether a situation violated separation of church and state: Does the governmental activity have a secular purpose? Does it advance or inhibit religion? Does it "foster an excessive entanglement with religion"?

Although the Lemon Test has been controversial and criticized by five sitting justices, the high court last week rebuffed an appeal by Indiana Gov. Frank L. O'Bannon, who wants to erect a seven-foot-high decalogue on the state Capitol lawn.

Dalzell wrote that Chester County's plaque violated the Lemon Test.

Dalzell wrote that the plaque was donated by a religious group and its text is a Protestant Christian interpretation of the Ten Commandments.

Only 84 words of the text, Dalzell wrote, "could be fairly regarded as conveying a secular, moral message."

Referring to testimony that the Ten Commandments was accepted by both Jews and Christians, as well as some Muslims, Dalzell noted that the Protestant interpretation on the plaque is "hardly of only philological interest."

"In 2002, it is easy to forget that people were once executed for championing the wrong text of the Bible," Dalzell wrote.


I particularly enjoy Ms. Kocher comments. Get a grip with reality, honey.


Oct 31, 2000

<< "That's a tragic decision," she said, "and don't think that the Lord won't hold them accountable." >>

Go sell crazy somewhere else. :)

Didn't the Supreme Court rule on the 10 Commandments in the Alabama court last week? (or actually refused to hear the case where a lower court said displaying the commandments are unconstitional).

Edit: It's the Governor of Indiana...and it's in the article. Duh.