Ten Commandments can remain on Indiana town’s property, judge rules

Tuesday, January 4, 2000

A 6-foot-high Ten Commandments monolith in front of a northern Indiana town's courthouse does not amount to government endorsement of religion, a federal judge has ruled.

In 1958, a local Fraternal Order of Eagles chapter donated the religious shrine to Elkhart, Ind., city officials. Last year a group of residents and the president of the state chapter of American Atheists, represented by the Indiana Civil Liberties Union, sued the city in federal court on the grounds that the religious monolith's placement on public property violated the separation of church and state.

Elkhart City Attorney Paul Eash argued in November before U.S. District Judge Allen Sharp that the religious monolith was one of several historical artifacts that appear around or inside the courthouse.

Late last week, Sharp ruled in a 49-page opinion that an observer would not see the Ten Commandments monolith as a government endorsement of religion and therefore the city would not have to remove the display.

“Although the text of the Ten Commandments dominates the monument, it cannot be said that the message of the monument is exclusively religious,” Sharp wrote. “A reasonable observer would know that the city had included the monument as part of its overall collection of displays of historical and cultural significance.”

Some other displays that Sharp said muted the religious display's message included a ram's head over the courthouse entrance and a small stone plaque commemorating the Revolutionary War.

Eash lauded Sharp's ruling and told the South Bend Tribune that “it was God's will that prevailed in the end.”

Kenneth Falk, legal director of the ICLU, said that the ruling would be appealed to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

“We think the decision is wrong and the display clearly remains a First Amendment violation,” he said.

Falk also said that five months ago, a federal magistrate issued an opinion that called for the city to remove the Ten Commandments monument. U.S. District Court Magistrate Theresa Springman said the religious monument's placement in front of the courthouse lawn was a violation of the establishment clause. However, Falk said, Sharp was not bound by Springman's recommendation.

Michael Suetkamp, director of the Indiana chapter of American Atheists, expressed disappointment in the ruling, but lauded the ICLU's decision to appeal.

“Unfortunately, a lot of people are just following the rhetoric and misinformation that is spoon fed them by those defending the display of religious propaganda on public property,” Suetkamp said in a prepared statement.