Ten Commandments to be removed from Georgia courthouse

Wednesday, March 3, 1999

A little more than month after government officials in a small Georgia town permitted a private religious group to place a plaque of the Ten Commandments in a county courthouse, they have decided to remove them.

In January the pastor of Holy Evangel Ministries persuaded the Lumpkin County Commission to approve placing the codes on a courthouse wall. Upon posting the Ten Commandments, the Rev. Joel Crotzer of Holy Evangel Ministries claimed that all of the nation's problems were a direct result of the First Amendment's religious-liberty clauses, which mandate a separation of church and state.

“The thing that holds our system together is the belief of our people in the pure doctrine and divine truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ,” Crotzer told The Dahlonega Nugget, a newspaper in Lumpkin County. “Without the blood of Jesus Christ this nation will perish. The Bill of Rights are God-given rights. The Lord founded this nation. All other laws are secondary to God's law. There is no separation of church and state.”

Citizens unhappy with the plaque contacted the state chapter of the national civil rights group Americans United for Separation of Church and State as well as the state affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Walter Bell, president of the state Americans United chapter, said that both organizations sent letters to Lumpkin County officials last week. Those letters, he said, prompted the county to announce March 1 its plans to remove the plaque by March 12.

“The plaque needed to be removed,” Bell said. “It violated both the First Amendment and Georgia's constitution. The organization that put it up was clearly trying to force governmental approval of its religious dogma.”

In its letter to Lumpkin County Commissioner Charlie A. Ridley and County Superior Court Judge Hugh W. Stone, the Georgia Americans United group cited federal case precedent in its appeal for the plaque's removal.

“In determining whether a religious display violates the Establishment Clause, the United States Supreme Court evaluates 'whether the challenged governmental practice either has the purpose or effect of endorsing religion,'” wrote Ayesha Khan, national litigation counsel for Americans United. “The Supreme Court has held that governmental action that singles out the Ten Commandments for display runs afoul of this principle.”

William M. Brownell Jr., the attorney for the Lumpkin County Commission, stated in a letter to Khan that “upon careful consideration of this issue, the Commissioner has agreed to take down the Ten Commandment display from the Lumpkin County Courthouse.” Khan received Brownell's two-sentence letter March 1.

Before the city's announcement, it appeared Lumpkin County officials would stand by their decision.

When the plaque was posted Ridley said that only the first four commandments dealt with a “relationship with God.” He said everyone in the community should consider the remaining six. Citing the “Thou shalt not kill” commandment, Ridley asked how anyone in the community could take umbrage with that. “When we kill another, we assume a power we do not have and make a choice that brings a consequence we cannot remedy,” Ridley said. “A major reason we have courthouses and police forces is to stop us from killing each other.”