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County sued over Ten Commandments display

Ralph Stewart and the Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU) filed a federal lawsuit in Greeneville last Thursday against Johnson County. The suit says the county’s preference for Christianity and its refusal to display Stewart’s proposed posters in its courthouse display violate the U.S. Constitution and deprive him of the right to freedom of speech and violates the separation of church and state.
In September of 2008 Stewart registered a complaint with the county regarding the display of a Ten Commandments plaque that hung in the hallway at the courthouse.
Almost immediately, Scott Teague, a local businessman came forward and united citizens wanting to retain the plaque into an organized effort, calling the group The Ten Commandment Warriors. Led by Teague, approximately 400 people gathered outside the courthouse prior to the October commissioners meeting to show their support for keeping the Ten Commandments in place. They presented the county commission with a petition signed by more than 9,000 Johnson County citizens supporting that cause.
County mayor at the time, Dick Grayson, contacted the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) and the Alliance Defense Fund ((ADF) for counsel regarding the matter. Acting on their advice and what they believed to be the wishes of the vast majority of the county’s residents, the commissioners unanimously voted to adopt a resolution that the plaque be made part of a historical document display in the lobby of the courthouse as a public forum for the citizenry of the county.
A display including not only the Ten Commandments, but also the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution with the Bill of Rights was unveiled on August 22, 2009. This date marked the tenth anniversary of the hanging of the original Ten Commandments plaque in the Johnson County courthouse in 1999. Money was raised for the display from private donations.
In the May 2010 commissioners meeting, Ralph Stewart came before the commission to detail his objections to the display and request the addition of two posters he had in tow. The first was entitled “On the Legal Heritage of the Separation of Church and State” and the other was “The Ten Commandments Are Not the Foundation of American Law.” When Chairman Freddy Phipps asked for clarification from Stewart, he refused to answer any questions except those directly related to his presentation.
The following month, the Johnson County commissioners unanimously denied Stewart’s request. Upon consultation with a law firm on the matter, they were told the proposed display did not meet requirements of the public forum as set up by the commission.
The 88-point complaint and suit filed last week says, among other things, that “the Johnson County Commission is promoting religion through its displays. In addition, the Commission refuses to allow alternative points of view to be heard. This is a twofold violation of the First Amendment.”
The documentation further states the county’s “asserted rationale – that (the) history-grounded display was insufficiently ‘historical’ – thinly disguises the county’s true motivation and the effects of its actions: to decorate the courthouse with displays that promote Christianity, and to exclude displays that promote the separation of church and state.”
The plaintiff also ascertains there have been additions to the display, specifically by the Johnson County Historical Society and the Tennessee National Guard, that were approved by the commission but do not contain historical documents. Stewart says he was told his posters did “not fit the public forum requirements, since they are not historical documents,” by then Mayor Grayson. The suit states to allow the posting of these displays but not his “constitutes impermissible content-based and viewpoint-based discrimination under the First Amendment.”
Stewart’s statement to the Americans United for Separation of Church and State as it appears on the UA website follows.
“I enjoy living in Johnson County, but I am disappointed that my local government has failed to remain neutral on religion. By allowing display of the Ten Commandments and Christian materials at the courthouse, but refusing to display my posters about the historical basis for church/state separation, the county commission is showing preference for one faith and for only one point of view.
Church/state separation is one of our country’s most important constitutional principles. The First Amendment demands that we keep religion and government separate and respect the right of all Americans to make their own decisions about religious matters. When I served in the military, I took an oath to uphold the U.S. Constitution. I still uphold the Constitution, and I see my role in this lawsuit as standing up for the constitutional rights to freedom of speech and freedom of religion.
The residents of Johnson County deserve to learn about the history of church/state separation. It is especially important for the children of our community to learn about their constitutional heritage. The teaching of religious doctrines, such as the Ten Commandments, should be left to parents, not the county commission.
The U.S. Constitution protects the rights of all Americans, regardless of their beliefs about religion. The government has no business pushing one belief on its citizens. That is what is happening in my community, and it’s simply wrong. Everyone should be treated equally and fairly.
All Americans should feel welcome to practice the faith of their choice, or to follow no faith at all. This is what our Constitution guarantees, and this is the true basis of our country’s laws.”
Stewart’s suit against the county concludes by requesting “nominal damages of one dollar for past violations of his constitutional rights, … an order awarding him the costs of this action including attorney’s fees … and any other relief that the court deems just and proper.”
County Mayor Larry Potter said there will be an executive session of the county court on Thursday night to discuss the matter. There will be no public statement concerning the lawsuit until after that time.