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Group sues over New Kensington-Arnold's Ten Commandments monument

| Friday, Sept. 14, 2012, 12:07 p.m.
The Ten Commandments monument stands outside the gymnasium entrance at Valley Junior-Senior High School in New Kensington.
Eric Felack | Tribune-Review
The Ten Commandments monument stands outside the gymnasium entrance at Valley Junior-Senior High School in New Kensington.
The Ten Commandments monument stood outside the gymnasium entrance at Valley High School in New Kensington for almost 50 years. It was removed on Tuesday, March 21, 2017.
Eric Felack | Tribune-Review
The Ten Commandments monument stood outside the gymnasium entrance at Valley High School in New Kensington for almost 50 years. It was removed on Tuesday, March 21, 2017.

As promised, the Freedom From Religion Foundation and two New Kensington-Arnold School District parents and their children on Friday filed a federal lawsuit objecting to the district's display of the Ten Commandments in front of Valley High School.

The Wisconsin-based organization first contacted the district in March, requesting the nearly 6-foot stone monument be removed. The foundation again wrote the district a letter in August, indicating it would sue if the monument was not removed by Sept. 7.

The district so far has not responded to the foundation's request or moved the Decalogue.

The plaintiffs argue that displaying the monument on public school property violates the Constitution's First Amendment guarantee of freedom of religion.

“The display of the Ten Commandments by the District has the primary effect of both advancing religion generally and advancing the tenets of a specific faith in particular,” wrote Pittsburgh attorney Marcus Schneid-er in Friday's court filing. It “also impermissibly coerces students to suppress their personal religious and non-religious beliefs and adopt the favored religious views of the District.”

School board President Bob Pallone and district Solicitor Tony Vigilante said the board did not have time to react to the foundation's August letter before the Sept. 7 deadline. The board is expected to discuss the situation Sept. 27, either during the public board meeting or in a private, executive session beforehand.

Pallone and Vigilante declined to comment on Friday now that litigation is pending.

Pallone earlier this week said he personally would like to “fight them all the way,” but noted the entire school board would have to make that decision.

Marie Schaub is one of the two parents who joined the suit; the other parent and both children are included anonymously.

Schaub describes herself as an agnostic and secularist who does not want her children exposed to the monument, which is prominently situated in front of the school near the gymnasium entrance.

“I didn't expect this attention,” Schaub said earlier this week. “I thought that the school would get the letter, realize that they are in clear violation and relocate the monument to private property.”

In the court filing, Schneider references the 1980 Supreme Court case Stone vs. Graham, which ruled it was unconstitutional to display copies of the Ten Commandments in Kentucky public schools, even if the plaques were purchased through private funding.

The court ruled that even though many of the commandments arguably are secular in nature, several are clearly religious and the “Ten Commandments are undeniably a sacred text in the Jewish and Christian faiths.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation also contacted the Connellsville Area School District last month, requesting the district remove a similar monument. Although the district covered the stone tablet in preparation to move it, the school board this week postponed a final decision.

Schneider said no lawsuit has been filed in the Connellsville case, although foundation co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor has said that is the intention if no action is taken.

The Connellsville monument has been the site of rallies this week in support of the display. Vandals several times have tried to remove the stone's covering.

New Kensington-Arnold Acting Superintendent Tom Rocchi said no vandalism or rallies at the Valley High School monument have been reported to him.

The Rev. Mitch Nickols of Bibleway Christian Fellowship Church in New Kensington in the spring helped organize a prayer vigil at Valley High School and circulated a petition urging the district to keep the monument.

Nickols said on Friday that because the monument was privately funded and the majority of the community supports its presence, it should remain.

“It's part of the community,” Nickols said. “The people in the community should have a say as to what happens in the community. If the majority of us don't have a problem with it, it shouldn't be a problem.”

The monument was donated in 1957 by the New Kensington aerie of the Fraternal Order of Eagles. The national organization donated many such monuments nationwide, including Connellsville's, in conjunction with the 1956 movie “The Ten Commandments.”

New Kensington Eagles Secretary Marc Hoak did not return a call for comment on Friday. Hoak previously said he hoped the district would keep the monument.

New Kensington city Controller John Zavadak said he created a Facebook page, “Keep the Ten Commandments at Valley High School,” in March to rally the community after he took exception to “outsiders” intruding.

“It's people that really aren't from this area coming and aggravating things,” Zavadak said. “You've got two (local) people who are going to be participating in this lawsuit. What they ought to do is mind their own business.”

Zavadak said he believes the Ten Commandments provide a good set of moral guidelines regardless of a person's religion. He would like to see a small piece of land beneath the monument sold or leased to a private party so it can remain in front of the school.

The Facebook page has gained about 1,250 supporters, including school board members Pallone, Marilyn Claassen, Debbie Glushenko, Pat Petit and George Zavadak, John Zavadak's son. Several district teachers and staff members also have joined the page.

In the lawsuit, Schneider references comments made by Pallone on the website on March 24: “Clearly, we are under attack from an outside group from the state of Wisconsin — Our community, the administration, the board and our staff are outraged by the request to remove a monument that has been part of our district and community for decades. We WILL NOT remove this monument without a fight!!!!!”

Pallone's comments initially were visible Friday morning, but appeared to have been removed from the site Friday afternoon.

A few derogatory comments, including some profanity, about Schaub had been posted to the site as of Friday afternoon. Schaub said other than some negative comments on the Internet, her family has not been threatened.

Liz Hayes is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4680 or lhayes@tribweb.com.

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