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Judge refuses to dismiss Ten Commandments case

| Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013, 1:17 a.m.

A federal judge will allow the lawsuit against New Kensington-Arnold School District's Ten Commandments monument to proceed.

Attorneys representing the district had asked U.S. District Judge Terrence F. McVerry to dismiss the lawsuit filed in September by the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation and two district families.

McVerry on Tuesday denied the district's request, indicating the case has “sufficient merit” to proceed to the discovery phase, during which both sides exchange information and establish facts.

The plaintiffs, represented by Pittsburgh attorney Marcus B. Schneider, argue the large stone monument in front of Valley High School is a violation of the First Amendment's prohibition on government endorsing a religion, which is known as the Establishment Clause.

The foundation first objected to the monument last spring. When the district did not respond to its request to remove the Decalogue, the foundation, joined by two local families, sued for its removal.

The district's position is that the monument, donated by the New Kensington branch of the Fraternal Order of Eagles in the late 1950s in connection with the release of “The Ten Commandments” movie, is a historic landmark with secular components that should be allowed to remain.

Through its attorneys, Amie A. Thompson and Anthony G. Sanchez, the district in November asked McVerry to dismiss the case.

They claimed the plaintiffs failed to establish an argument proving the monument was a violation of the Establishment Clause.

The school district also alleged the lawsuit could be resolved by the 2005 case of Van Orden versus Perry, in which the Supreme Court permitted a monument nearly identical to New Kensington's Decalogue to remain on the grounds of the Texas State Capitol building.

The plaintiffs countered that the district's reliance on the Van Orden case did not address all of the nuances of the New Kensington case.

They also argued that, given the complexity of and varied rulings in Establishment Clause cases, this case warranted legal review.

“Establishment Clause challenges are all unique and driven by the particular facts of the case,” McVerry wrote in Tuesday's order. “(Through the discovery phase), the parties will have ample opportunity to build a sufficient factual record that permits this Court to meaningfully apply the decisional law to this difficult, context-driven task.”

Lawyers from both sides did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.

McVerry gave the district until Feb. 5 to respond to the plaintiffs' original complaint.

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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