Lawsuit challenges another Ky. county’s commandments displays

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

McKEE, Ky. — A man has asked a federal judge to order that nine copies of the Ten Commandments be taken down from an eastern Kentucky courthouse.

Eugene Phillips Jr., with the backing of the American Civil Liberties Union, sued Jackson County and Judge-Executive William O. Smith last week over the displays. In the suit, Phillips calls the displays an improper government endorsement of religion. It seeks an injunction ordering the county to take down the copies.

Smith told The Lexington Herald-Leader he had not seen a copy of the lawsuit, but that most county residents would support keeping the display. He said a judge might order the county to remove the displays, but “that doesn't mean it's right.”

There have been several court fights over Kentucky counties posting the Ten Commandments in the last decade.

In August 2008, a federal judge made permanent an injunction barring McCreary and Pulaski counties from posting documents containing the Ten Commandments. U.S. District Judge Jennifer B. Coffman said she would allow attorneys for the counties to argue that government officials’ motives had changed for posting the commandments.

The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in a 5-4 decision in 2005 upheld the injunction, citing county officials’ statements of religious motivation. However, the divided Court left open the possibility in McCreary County, Ky. V. ACLU of Kentucky that the counties could someday post the commandments if they could demonstrate secular motives.

In April 2008, a federal judge permanently barred Grayson County from using the Ten Commandments as part of a “Foundations of American Law and Government” display.

U.S. District Judge Joseph H. McKinley said in ACLU v. Grayson County that the display had the “effect of endorsing religion.”

In September 2007, a federal judge found that a Ten Commandments display in Rowan County Fiscal Court did not violate the Constitution. The commandments were part of the “Foundations of American Law and Government” exhibit at the courthouse.

U.S. District Judge Karl Forester said in ACLU of Kentucky v. Rowan County that the display “does not have the effect of endorsing religion. “That Ten Commandments display, part of the “Foundations of American Law and Government” exhibit at the courthouse, came under fire in 2001 when the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky filed a lawsuit claiming the display was unconstitutional.

Forester cited a similar case involving Mercer County, which had a display virtually identical to Rowan County's. Mercer County’s display was upheld by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in its 2005 ruling, ACLU of Kentucky v. Mercer County.

Also in September 2007, but before his ruling in the Rowan County case, Forester refused to dismiss a similar suit in Garrard County, saying that “a reasonable person would conclude that the county's display has the effect of endorsing religion.”

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