Georgia county officials change course on religious display in courthouse

Tuesday, March 30, 1999

Lawmakers in a Georgia county have taken yet another position on the constitutionality of a Ten Commandments display in the county courthouse – it will remain, but as part of a larger display.

Earlier this year at the behest of a Christian pastor, the Lumpkin County Commission approved placing a plaque of the religious codes on government property. The Georgia chapter of the nonprofit group Americans United for Separation of Church and State was contacted by citizens about the display. In mid-February, an attorney for the national office of Americans United sent a letter to county officials warning that the religious display “runs afoul of the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution,” and that it needed to be removed “to avoid legal action.”

At first it appeared the Ten Commandments would not be removed without a court fight. County Commissioner Charlie A. Ridley defended the religious codes, saying that only four of the commandments dealt with religion.

On March 1, however, the Lumpkin County attorney sent a letter to Americans United saying that “upon careful consideration of this issue, the Commissioner has agreed to take down the Ten Commandments display from the Lumpkin County Courthouse.” William M. Brownell Jr., moreover, said the religious codes would be removed by March 12.

In a March 12 letter to Americans United, however, Brownell said that Ridley had been out of town and that “it will take two more weeks before the display is removed.”

Late last week, Brownell sent another letter to Americans United, this time to let the group know that the Ten Commandments plaque would actually remain in the county courthouse.

“After much deliberation and a careful review of numerous Establishment Clause cases, Commissioner Ridley has made the decision to create a much larger display in the courthouse which will include the present Ten Commandments plaque,” Brownell wrote in a March 26 letter. The new display to be titled “Great Words and Thoughts on Good Character and Citizenship” would contain at least five additional plaques “inscripted with well-known rules, sayings and quotations on citizenship and character,” Brownell said.

Ayesha Khan, litigation counsel for Americans United, said that the county's decision to expand the display did not appear to bring it within constitutional parameters.

“The title that these are thoughts on good character and good citizenship does not alter the fact that government is encouraging adherence to the religious codes,” Khan said. “Also, the plaques they suggest they will add are much smaller than the Ten Commandments one. We hope the city will make changes to the display that comply with constitutional requirements.”

Khan stated in a March 29 letter to Lumpkin County officials that they must create a display that did not have the effect of endorsing or disapproving religious beliefs.

In 1993 a district court in Georgia ruled that a religious display in the Cobb County courthouse flouted the constitutional requirements of church-state separation. However, the district judge noted that an educational display that would include the Ten Commandments could pass constitutional muster.

In Harvey v. Cobb County, Judge Marvin H. Shoob wrote that a Ten Commandments plaque as part of a display that also included “all the various moral, historical, and political influences on our legal system such as the Code of Hammurabi, the Code of Justinian, and passages from early English cases” could be seen as “an appropriate educational display.”

Khan wrote that the display described by Brownell did not appear to send an educational or historical message.

“In contrast, a display on 'Good Character and Citizenship' sends the unmistakable message that the County believes that adherence to certain beliefs and behaviors is good,” Khan wrote. “That is, the title conveys the unavoidable message that the county endorses the display's contents, including the Ten Commandments. This is constitutionally problematic because endorsement of religious views – regardless of their accompaniment – lies at the heart of the Establishment Clause's prohibitions.”