Civil rights group says Georgia county seal advances religion

Wednesday, May 17, 2000

A Unitarian minister wants a federal court to order a Georgia county to remove what he says is the Ten Commandments from an official court seal.

Represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia, the Rev. Daniel King and two other Richmond County residents have sued the Superior Court of Richmond County in federal court claiming the county court’s seal endorses and promotes Christianity in violation of both federal and state constitutions.

Robert Tsai, a staff attorney for the Georgia ACLU, said the county seal, which depicts two rounded-stone tablets with the Roman numerals I through X and a sword in the background, dates to at least 1871. Tsai said county residents including King complained to the ACLU in 1998 that the court’s seal violates the separation of church and state. The seal appears on numerous county documents, including subpoenas, summonses, deeds and certified court documents.

In June 1998, the ACLU requested that the county produce documents describing the court’s decision to use and maintain the seal. James W. Ellison, the Richmond County attorney, responded to the ACLU’s request in a letter, saying, “the emblem on the seal may well represent the Ten Commandments.”

In late 1998, Ellison again wrote to the ACLU saying that the county could find no documents “relating to the authorizing legislation or the decision to use the seal.”

In early 1999, the ACLU told county officials that the matter could be resolved by altering the seal to depict the Bill of Rights by modifying the shape of the rounded tablets and including the phrase, “Bill of Rights.”

Elaine C. Johnson, the clerk of Richmond County Superior Court, rejected the ACLU’s suggestion and said the seal may have been intended to depict either the Bill of Rights or the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, an 18th-century French manifesto.

On May 11, the ACLU sued the county in federal court seeking a declaration that the seal violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment and the Georgia Constitution and an order forcing the county to drop the depiction from its seal.

Tsai said that, despite the county’s claims that the seal may not be a depiction of the Ten Commandments, “the truth of the matter is what a reasonable observer is going to see.” He said the ACLU and the taxpayers it is representing view the court’s seal as including the religious codes.

“No reasonable person would view the two tablets as a representation of the Bill of Rights because, among other things, the Bill of Rights is not commonly depicted as two rounded tablets,” the ACLU’s 24-page complaint states. The group’s complaint also cites numerous letters published in area newspapers from county residents as well as an editorial from The Augusta Chronicle stating that the seal depicts the Ten Commandments.

The ACLU also argues that no “reasonable person” could view the seal as depicting the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, because “that document contained seventeen paragraphs, not ten,” and it “is not commonly depicted in tablet form, and the average person simply is not familiar with the historical French document.”

Bob Young, mayor of Augusta, which is within Richmond County, derided the ACLU action as “ludicrous.”

Mark Gibbons, administrative assistant to the mayor, said the “whole thing is weird” and was something the mayor “should not have to worry about.”

“What if this happens to be the Bill of Rights?” he asked. “The mayor does not have a problem with this seal being placed on any county document. The ACLU’s suit is also the first time our office has received any complaint about the seal.”

The ACLU claims the county court’s seal “signals the County’s intent to invoke this religious tradition and to imbue the work of the Court with Judeo-Christian religious authority.”

In its complaint, the ACLU cites the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1980 ruling in Stone v. Graham. In that case the high court said the Ten Commandments are “undeniably a sacred text” that could not constitutionally be posted in public school classrooms. The high court, however, did conclude that the Ten Commandments “may constitutionally be used in an appropriate study of history, civilization, ethics, comparative religion, or the like.”