Ten Commandments monument legal battle continues in New Kensington-Arnold School District

Liz Hayes
| Monday, Dec. 28, 2015, 12:01 a.m.

Editor's note: As we reflect back on 2015, we think of many of the interesting and offbeat stories we've covered and ask ourselves, “Whatever happened to ...” As a result, we're publishing a series of articles updating stories covered by the Valley News Dispatch this year.

Six organizations this month joined the legal battle to remove a Ten Commandments monument from Valley Junior-Senior High School in New Kensington.

Joining the lawsuit originally filed in 2012 by the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, New Kensington-Arnold School District resident Marie Schaub and her teenage daughter, are the Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the Anti-Defamation League, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Jewish Social Policy Action Network, The Sikh Coalition, and the Union for Reform Judaism.

In a joint “friend of the court” brief filed Dec. 17, attorney Stephen M. Shapiro of the Chicago-based Mayer Brown law firm wrote the organizations have a history of involvement in cases alleging violations of the Constitutional prohibition on government endorsement of religion.

They also voice concern over U.S. District Judge Terrence F. McVerry's July ruling that Schaub and her daughter don't have standing in the case because they didn't prove they came into “direct, regular, and unwelcome contact” with the monument.

Because of the lack of standing, McVerry dismissed the case without ruling on the core issue of whether the monument violates the Constitution.

Schaub, her daughter and the Freedom From Religion Foundation have appealed McVerry's decision to the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals.

Although Schaub's daughter is attending a different school and not coming into daily contact with the monument, they say the family would have kept her at Valley if the monument were gone.

“To prevent (Schaub's daughter, identified as Doe 1) from walking in the shadow of this imposing monolith, Marie Schaub initiated this case when Doe 1 was two years away from attending VHS,” wrote attorney Marcus Schneider in a Dec. 10 brief describing the appeal.

“When August 2014 arrived and the case remained unresolved, Schaub and her family made the difficult decision to remove Doe 1 from her home school district to avoid the coercive effect that (they) believe the Monument conveys. Schaub and Doe 1 continue to deal with the burdens associated with this decision at the time of this appeal.”

And even though the child no longer attends the school, Schneider notes she may still come in contact with the monument by driving by the high school or if she attends the Northern Westmoreland Career and Technology Center, which shares a campus with Valley.

Schneider argues the courts have two ways of resolving the issue: injunctive relief — removing the monument — and/or nominal damages — compensating Schaub for the expense of sending her daughter to another school.

New Kensington-Arnold School District has not yet filed a response to the appellants' argument for an appeal.

While the fight over the New Kensington-Arnold's Decalogue moves into its fourth year, a companion lawsuit in Pennsylvania was resolved earlier this year.

A month after McVerry dismissed the New Kensington-Arnold case, he ruled a similar monument at Connellsville Area School District was unconstitutional.

McVerry didn't force the district to remove it since the student who complained no longer attended the junior high school, but the school board opted to move it rather than face future legal battles.

The monument in October was moved to church property that borders another Connellsville school.

Both monuments were donated to the school districts by the Fraternal Order of Eagles in the 1950s, part of a nationwide movement in response to the 1956 release of the movie, “The Ten Commandments.”

The circumstances of the donation and the monolith's presence at Valley for more than 50 years have been cited by the district as evidence that the monument has an historic and secular purpose, not a purely religious one.

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

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