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10 Commandments likely to stand another year outside Valley High

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Eric Felack | Valley News Dispatch
The Ten Commandments monument, shown here on Monday, Sept. 10, 2012, stands outside the gymnasium entrance at Valley High School in New Kensington.

'American Coyotes' Series

Traveling by Jeep, boat and foot, Tribune-Review investigative reporter Carl Prine and photojournalist Justin Merriman covered nearly 2,000 miles over two months along the border with Mexico to report on coyotes — the human traffickers who bring illegal immigrants into the United States. Most are Americans working for money and/or drugs. This series reports how their operations have a major impact on life for residents and the environment along the border — and beyond.

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Editor's note: This is the fifth in a series of articles updating stories covered by the VND throughout 2013. The stories will appear daily, except Sunday, through the end of the year.

The marble monument of the Ten Commandments has been standing outside Valley High School in New Kensington for 50 years.

It will endure there for at least another year, as a lengthy court battle continues.

Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion filed a lawsuit against the New Kensington-Arnold School District in September 2012 to have the statue removed. The group argues that the statue violates the First Amendment's prohibition on government establishing a religion.

The district wants the monument to remain.

Both sides agree the conflict will take more legal wrangling. A court hearing that was to take place Dec. 20 was not held and is scheduled for March 21.

“We're still in that fact-finding stage, and there's really not anything to update on, unfortunately,” said Marcus B. Schneider, a Pittsburgh attorney who represents the Freedom From Religion group. “There are so many documents changing hands.”

Anthony G. Sanchez, a Pittsburgh attorney who represents the district for this case, agreed.

“This case has had extensive discovery, and we both believe we needed additional time,” Sanchez said.

Once the hearing is held, there will still be legal matters that must be settled for the case to be decided.

Both sides predict that the earliest that could take place would be late summer or fall.

The attorneys said that the case is unlikely to go to trial before a jury. Instead, the judge overseeing the case would decide the matter based on the law.

“If there are no material factual disputes, there's no job for the jury,” Schneider said. “So we can place the legal standpoints before the court. This is more a disagreement about how the law applies to the facts. ”

Judge Terrence F. McVerry is handling the New Kensington-Arnold case and a similar one filed by Freedom From Religion against the Connellsville School District. A similar Ten Commandments statue is situated at the junior high school there.

Sanchez said the cases have not been combined but are working on the same time frame.

Even if the judge makes a decision then, Sanchez said the court battle could go beyond next year.

“Whoever loses can, and probably will, appeal,” Sanchez said.

Both sides believe they will win.

“We believe there is no violation of the Constitution and that we will prevail,” Sanchez said.

Likewise, Schneider said he believes Freedom From Religion will win.

“We continue to believe that the plaintiffs will prevail in these cases based upon the interpretations of the Establishment Clause in other cases involving schools,” Schneider said.

The Establishment Clause is the part of the First Amendment that states “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”

Neither attorney could state the percentage of times a religious symbol remains at or is removed from a public space after a legal challenge.

“I don't really know enough situations to comment how it's usually handled,” Schneider said.

Sanchez said while there are many religious symbols at public buildings, there are not that many court cases seeking their removal.

“For example, I was at the Pennsylvania Superior Court the other day in downtown Pittsburgh, and I looked up at the ceiling, and there was a picture of Moses being handed the Ten Commandments,” Sanchez said. “In my estimation, cases don't come up a lot.”

Maria Guzzo is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.

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