City contemplates posting Ten Commandments in all public buildings

Wednesday, September 22, 1999

A Georgia town council and its mayor are convinced the First Amendment does not bar government-sponsored religion and have said all city buildings will soon be adorned with the Ten Commandments.

The Brunswick City Commission and Mayor Brad Brown last week asked the city attorney to examine a proposal to display the Ten Commandments in all official settings. The proposal, supported by all five city commissioners as well as the mayor, was put forth by a local businessman who told the commissioners at a meeting earlier this month that it was time “to take America back.”

Commissioner Jonathan Williams said at a commission meeting that “the Ten Commandments should have a place in business and personal lives,” and the mayor has said most in the community would endorse the commission's decision.

Two civil rights groups have already warned the city that the establishment clause of the First Amendment would be violated if the city went ahead with its plans.

Debbie Seagraves, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia, said that if Brunswick officials started placing religious documents in city buildings, she would encourage citizens to contact her office.

“There certainly is an establishment clause problem with posting the Ten Commandments in government buildings,” Seagraves said. “Courts have ruled that it is a violation of the separation of church and state to have Christian documents posted in public buildings. These public buildings are used by citizens to conduct their business, and they have a right to participate in their government without having a religion chosen for them.”

In 1993, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Harvey v. Cobb County that a Ten Commandments display had to be removed from a Georgia county courthouse because it violated the separation of church and state. Subsequently, the U.S. Supreme Court denied a request to review the federal appeals court's ruling.

On Sept. 14, the litigation counsel for Americans United for Separation of Church and State sent a letter to Brunswick City Attorney Lynn Frey urging him to dissuade city officials from posting the religious codes.

“A display of the Ten Commandments would not only constitute an endorsement of Christianity; it would constitute an endorsement of a particular version of Christianity,” the group said in its letter. “There is no consensus on the wording, composition, or even order of the Commandments. By displaying a particular rendition of the Ten Commandments, Brunswick would run afoul of the federal and state constitutional prohibition on practices that prefer one religion over another.”

Mayor Brown reiterated his position to The Brunswick News, a city daily, that the majority of the community would support the Ten Commandments. As for the ACLU and Americans United, Brown said, “They don't live here, they don't worship here, and they're not part of this community.”

Walter Bell, president of the Georgia chapter of Americans United, said the mayor and city commissioners apparently do not grasp the genesis of the First Amendment.

“We live in a very diverse country — it is diverse even here in Georgia — and many other religions other than Christianity are apart of the community,” Bell said. “This country is based on individual rights, not majority rule. If majority rule was the Constitution's guiding force, then I guess Brunswick could also do away with women's rights.”