Sunday, November 13, 2011

“The Ten Commandments Are Not the Foundation of American Law”

A few days ago Americans United, a group “committed to church-state separation and individual freedom” announced that a settlement was made in the case Stewart v. Johnson County, Tennessee. Ralph Stewart got the attention of the court when he sued the Johnson County Commission after their decision to refuse him the right to display his literature about the historic role of church and state separation in American law within the lobby of the county courthouse. The county had created a limited public forum in which individuals or organizations can donate displays that “directly relate to the development of law…” The items did not need to secular as evident with the Ten Commandments and a 26-page pamphlet entitled “From Biblical Morality to Modern Law” already present within the display. The county declined to include Stewart’s literature, “On the Local Heritage on the Separation of Church and State” and “The Ten Commandments Are Not the Foundation of American Law” on the grounds that it did not fall within the subject matter of public forum. The settlement was in favor of Stewart and required the Johnson County Commission to display the posters in a prominent place, payment of $75,000 in legal fees, and a modification to its policy to establish that county commissioners may not reject a display because they dislike the content.

The constitutionality of the county’s actions is in question. Did they violate the establishment clause by solely allowing Christian material to be publically displayed within the courthouse? In my opinion yes they did. Although Stewart’s literature may lean towards being non-religious rather than solely secular, it still deserves equal representation within the governmental display. “I’d prefer for government to stay out of the business of promoting religious documents altogether,” said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “But if government officials choose to go down this path, they must at least play fair and treat all citizens equally.” By allowing the Ten Commandments to be displayed but not allowing literature that opposes this viewpoint and credits the common and statuary law of England to be the basis of American law benefits Christianity over non-religion.

In my opinion Johnson County decided to settle on this case rather than see it out because they knew they were in the wrong by allowing an official to disallow equal representation based upon their personal religious views. Stewart’s presentation clearly fell within the “subject matter of the public forum” by utilizing many of the same historical sources of the other Christian displays. Due to the apparent favoritism towards the religion the county decided to settle and alter the requirements for future displays. The settlement requires all rejections to be accompanied with a written explanation with valid reason not simply because commissioners don’t like the content. County officials also included a disclaimer stating that the “displays are sponsored by private citizens, not the county” to hopefully alleviate and future legal trouble.


Harry R. said...

I agree with Jon that the county was wrong in denying Stewart's poster to be displayed. The limited public forum created discussed topics such as the one on his poster and the county did not have the right to restrict his speech based on his non-religious viewpoint.

Callie B said...

I agree with both Harry and Jon as well. This is quite clearly viewpoint discrimination and seems to correlate to Lamb's Chapel and the Good News Club. The only requirement was that the display related to the history of law which Stewart's display clearly did. The county showed clear preference to religion by prohibiting a non religious viewpoint.

Susan in Florida said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Susan in Florida said...

Where can I buy a similar poster or plaque? Is this something individual citizens can do? Request that the plaque be displayed anywhere that a government building has some sort of religious display?

Susan in Florida said...­

A few snippets from that link:

Just to be clear: Americans United’s preference would be that courthouses and other government buildings be free of religious symbols and sectarian codes.

.....invoking a “free speech zone.” They have to understand what that means. Free speech means free speech for everyone. Those courthouse plazas may get awfully crowded. Rather than litter our courthouses with every conceivable religious and secular code, we’d do better to keep those signs and symbols where they belong – in private homes and houses of worship. ....