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Published: Wednesday, 5/30/2001

Ten Commandments monument near courthouse to stand

BY DALE EMcH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

A Ten Commandments monument on the Lucas County Courthouse lawn apparently faces no imminent threat of removal, despite a U.S. Supreme Court ruling yesterday regarding a similar marker in an Indiana town.

The court decided not to hear a church-state case from Elkhart, which means a lower court's ruling will stand that a Ten Commandment marker on city property there is improper.

Sandy Isenberg, president of the Lucas County commissioners, insisted she would have to be forced by the courts to remove the decades-old monument. But Jeffrey Gamso, vice-president of the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, said no lawsuit is in the works from his organization.

“Is there some sentiment that it shouldn't be there? Yes,” said Mr. Gamso, a Toledo attorney. “But are we going to sue over it? There aren't any immediate plans to do that.”

The Indiana case was considered a test of whether public display of the Ten Commandments violates the principle of separation of church and state.

The court turned aside an appeal by Elkhart officials, who had lost the church-state fight in lower courts. The dispute was over a granite marker bearing the biblical commandments that has stood on the lawn of the city office building since 1958.

A federal judge will now determine what to do with the monument. Two Elkhart residents, with backing from the American Civil Liberties Union, had sued to get rid of the marker.

In Lucas County, the Ten Commandments monument was erected on the southeast corner of the courthouse lawn by the Fraternal Order of Eagles in 1957. In 1959, the ACLU erected a tablet nearby that contains the Bill of Rights.

Ms. Isenberg said she has no problem with the Ten Commandments monument because it doesn't promote a specific religion.

“I think it's very generic,” she said. “For those persons who do not believe in a Greater Power, I could understand that, but on behalf of the board, I don't believe it's inappropriate that it's there. ... If the courts felt it was inappropriate to be there, then fine.”

Julia Bates, Lucas County prosecutor, said her office likely would have to defend the county if someone initiated a lawsuit. She said she has no problem with the monument being displayed on the courthouse lawn.

“The Ten Commandments are laws and this is a courthouse where we deal with laws,” Mrs. Bates said. “It's just one example of historic laws.”

Mr. Gamso disagreed with that viewpoint, saying the commandments represent a Judeo-Christian philosophy that may be different from those shared by people of other faiths.

“It is our position that monuments honoring a set of religious beliefs have no business on a government property,” he said. “They serve as a tacit endorsement of religion.”

The U.S. Supreme Court considered the issue after Elkhart had asked the high court to overturn a federal appeals court ruling that the monument is an unconstitutional government promotion of religion.

The city claimed a high court ruling, which prohibited such displays on school grounds in 1980, did not preclude the display of the list elsewhere on government property. It claimed that the lawn display met various tests the Supreme Court had set out for public displays of other religious symbols.

It takes the affirmative votes of at least four justices to get a case heard, but the court almost never reveals the vote by which it agrees or refuses to take a case.

At least three justices - Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas - nonetheless went on record as saying they disagreed with the decision not to hear the case.

Justices Rehnquist, Scalia and Thomas said they found nothing wrong with the monument. It “simply reflects the Ten Commandments' role in the development of our legal system,” Justice Rehnquist wrote for the three.

Justice John Paul Stevens added his own note, taking issue with the dissenters. He said the words “I am the Lord thy God,” in the first line of the monument's inscription, are “rather hard to square with the proposition that the monument expresses no particular religious preference.”

The Ten Commandments contain both religious and secular directives, including the familiar proscriptions on stealing, killing, and adultery.

The nine Supreme Court justices have declined past invitations to hear challenges to similar monuments donated by the Eagles, most recently in 1996.

In that case, the court turned away a constitutional challenge to a monument in a park near the Colorado state capitol, meaning the monument could stay. Lower courts have been divided over the issue.

The decision at issue in the Elkhart case was a ruling by a divided three-judge panel of the Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Another federal appeals court, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, ruled the other way and approved the continued display of an Eagles monument.

Other fights over the Ten Commandments have focused on the list's display in courtrooms. Backers say the commandments are a cornerstone of western legal thought, while opponents make the same First Amendment claim at issue in the Elkhart case.

The Supreme Court's own courtroom contains depictions of the Ten Commandments, though the words themselves do not appear.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.



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