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By KEN PAULSON
First Amendment Center
It’s been almost 10 years since the Rutherford County, lost a very expensive lawsuit over the posting of the Ten Commandments in the county courthouse.
The American Civil Liberties Union sued the Commission, contending that the posting was an unconstitutional promotion of religion. U.S. Judge Robert Echols agreed and ordered the Ten Commandments removed in 2004. It will “stay down,” County Mayor Ernest Burgess said at the time, calling it “the end of the story.”
Not quite. Rutherford County Sheriff Robert Arnold has posted the Ten Commandments in his department’s lobby, along with a copy of the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence.
Arnold told the Daily News Journal that he had a right to post the Commandments and that the federal court’s decision occurred before he took office.
“That was before me,” Arnold told the newspaper. “I really don’t know all the details about that.”
That’s a novel defense.
The legal principles involving a government body posting the Ten Commandments are a little bit muddy, thanks to some inconsistencies by the U.S. Supreme Court, but the basic principles are clear.
The First Amendment prohibits any government agency from posting a religious document unless it has a clear non-religious purpose, doesn’t have the primary effect of promoting religion and doesn’t entangle government in religion.
The sheriff’s action isn’t likely to meet those tests.
It’s astonishing that a government official would post the Ten Commandments in a public building in the same county where a federal judge has so clearly spelled out that the action violates the First Amendment. As Judge Echols wrote in 2004, “it is difficult for the court to reach any conclusion other than that the sole purpose of erecting the challenged display was for the advancement of a religious purpose.”
Is Rutherford County really prepared to spend tens of thousands in additional taxpayers’ funds to fight a battle it lost so convincingly in 2004?
The establishment clause of the First Amendment essentially says that those on the public payroll cannot play favorites with religion. The Ten Commandments is a Christian and Jewish document, but the government is supposed to serve all the people.
“Our nation’s founders knew of the persecutions suffered under religious tyranny and intended to insulate this great nation from fearful predicaments. The First Amendment therefore wisely prohibits the establishment of religion by the government,” Echols wrote in 2004. “This means that the government cannot take sides or involve itself with the most popular religion or with any religion.”
Sheriff Arnold told the Daily News Journal his “job is to uphold the laws. I’m not making anybody do anything.”
A good first step in upholding the law is respecting the Constitution.
Ken Paulson is president and chief executive officer of the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University and in Washington, D.C. Previously, Paulson served as the editor and senior vice president/news of USA Today.