Kansas mayor defends government display of Ten Commandments

Thursday, October 29, 1998

Despite the First Amendment's requirement that government remain separate from religion, lawmakers throughout the country continue to test its boundaries.

Apparently government displays of the Ten Commandments remain a politically popular action, even though federal courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, have stated that such displays are constitutionally suspect.

Steve Hall, mayor of Manhattan, an eastern Kansas town, said last week that a stone monument with the Ten Commandments engraved in marble would not be removed from city hall because “as a Roman Catholic, it doesn't offend me.”

The commandments, commonly understood to be associated with the Christian and Jewish faiths, did offend some in the community, however. The city manager told Manhattan's daily newspaper that his office had received complaints from residents about the stone monolith. It was given to the city in 1958 by a local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Eagles.

Hall said the display wouldn't be removed and that city hall had “two other entrances people can use if they don't want to see the Ten Commandments.”

Dick Kurtenbach, executive director of the Kansas and Western Missouri chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said that his group would investigate the matter if asked by citizens.

“Generally speaking, government must be neutral on matters of religion,” Kurtenbach said. He added that the Ten Commandments display by the Manhattan city government could amount to an endorsement of Christianity.

In 1997, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals — to which Kansas belongs — ruled that a public display of the Ten Commandments on government property in Salt Lake City was a government endorsement of religion unless the government added other secular or religious symbols in front of the courthouse.

Debate over religion's proper place in public has also engulfed a couple of small counties in eastern Tennessee.

Last month the Sullivan County Commission approved a resolution urging the display of the religious codes along with the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights in the courthouse. The commission's vote was partly in response to complaints about a Ten Commandments display in neighboring Washington County. Both actions have been criticized by the Tennessee ACLU and the state director of the American Atheists.

Late last week, the Sullivan County commission allowed residents to voice concerns over its plan to place the Ten Commandments, along with the other documents, in the courthouse.

Carletta Sims, president of the state chapter of the American Atheists, said she attended the commission's meeting and that the commission appeared to be backing off support for the resolution.

Sims said she told the commissioners and residents that any attempts to secularize a display of the Ten Commandments would run afoul of the separation of church and state.

“The establishment clause of the First Amendment forbids this action,” Sims says she told the commission at the town hall meeting. “Everyone knows the Ten Commandments is a sectarian religious plaque. And to try and make it look legal by an attempt to install other historical documents alongside it is foolish and at best shows contempt and disregard for minority religions as well as atheists.”

Other residents, however, showed support for the commission's resolution.

Christopher Christian, a Sullivan County resident, said the commission was simply following the will of Sullivan residents. “I believe the majority of Sullivan Countians are just like me,” Christian said, according to the Kingsport Times-News. “They believe in our founding documents and possess the Judeo-Christian ethics which made this country great. The atheistic historical-revisionists of today wish to hide the profound faith of our founding fathers.”

According to Mike Gonce, the Sullivan County commissioner who sponsored the resolution, the commission has not dropped the resolution and the documents should be placed in the courthouse in six to eight weeks.

“The commission still feels this is the right thing to do and that the resolution was appropriate,” Gonce said. “The documents [reflect] the heritage of our country and county.”

Gonce also said he was not worried about a potential lawsuit.

“I think those opposed to the resolution have continued to single out one document that they don't realize is a significant part of American history,” Gonce said. “The inclusion of the Ten Commandments does not establish a religion and that was not our government's intent. Out intent is to post three heritage documents that demonstrate the foundation on which the country was built.”

As for Washington County's display of the Ten Commandments, Sims said she was still contemplating a lawsuit.

“There are concerned citizens in Washington County,” Sims said. “They oppose the plaque being in front of the courthouse. We are committed to the absolute separation of church and state and will continue to follow the situation.”