Connellsville school district covers Ten Commandments monument

Renatta Signorini
| Friday, Sept. 7, 2012, 12:08 p.m.

School bus driver Carol Burkholder thinks it would be a sin to lose the Ten Commandments monument that has stood near the entrance of Connellsville Area Junior High for more than 50 years.

A sheet of plywood now covers the stone since its removal was requested by a parent and a national group that advocates church-state separation.

“I think most Christians in the area are very upset,” Burkholder said on Friday. “I think people need to stand up for what God has given us.”

In August, the Connellsville Area School District got two requests to remove the monument — one from Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the other from a parent through a Pittsburgh law firm, Superintendent Dan Lujetic said.

The district plans to comply — a move that is unpopular but necessary to avoid a costly lawsuit, he said.

“It's been here since 1957, and now we have to remove it,” Lujetic said. “If we wanted to fight this, there's no way we would win.”

The monument, donated by the Connellsville Fraternal Order of Eagles, may get a new home.

Pastor Nelson D. Confer of Connellsville Church of God said the church will decide on Sunday if it will accept a donation of the monument.

The church property is visible from the junior and senior high schools.

“This is going to be our way to fight back,” the pastor said. “I cannot see the congregation turning it down.”

District solicitor Chris Stern concluded that law prohibits such a monument on school property. It was first covered with plastic and duct tape, but someone tore off that covering. Since school began Tuesday, plywood has shielded the monument.

The law is clear that state-related agencies should not act “in a way that would indicate some alignment with religion or non-religion,” said attorney Marcus Schneider, whose firm, Steele Schneider Attorneys at Law, represents the complaining parent.

The parent was referred by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, an atheist group in Wisconsin that raised the issue unsuccessfully with the New Kensington-Arnold School District.

“There haven't been any cases upheld which allowed a religious monument to stand on school grounds,” Schneider said.

Through the attorney, the parent declined to be identified. Schneider said it was unclear if the protest was based on legal or religious grounds.

A community member filed a formal complaint with the district on Thursday asking it to save the monument, Stern said.

“Courts ... make decisions all the time that are unpopular, but they're answering to the Constitution,” Stern said. “This is our attempt to comply with the law.”

That displeased two parents picking up their daughters at the school on Friday afternoon.

“What are we teaching our kids? What kind of message are we sending to our children?” asked Paula Grubach of South Connellsville.

Shelly Porterfield of Connellsville took a glimpse at the monument in the plywood shroud and walked away.

“That's freedom of speech,” she said. “It's bad enough that they've taken the prayer out (of school).”

Valley High School in New Kensington faced a similar challenge in March from the Freedom From Religion Foundation to remove its Ten Commandments monument. The foundation never found a community member to initiate a lawsuit. The monument still stands.

In the last several years, Americans United for Separation of Church and State got a cross removed from a post office in Broomall, near Philadelphia, and opposed a Ten Commandments monument in a Hanover public park. Hanover sold the land. The monument still stands.

Renatta Signorini is a staff writerfor Trib Total Media. Staff writer Rossilynne Skena contributed to this report.

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