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Ten Commandments monument outside school sparks debate

| Saturday, March 24, 2012

While separation of church and state proponents decry the existence of a Ten Commandments monument outside Valley High School in New Kensington, district officials are saying they won't kowtow to demands that it be removed.

That's at least not immediately. The officials said Solicitor Tony Vigilante -- who couldn't be reached for comment on Friday -- will review the issue.

"I personally believe the complaint is ludicrous," board President Bob Pallone said. "We as a district do not intend to take down the monument. We feel confident this is not a violation of church and state."

Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation wrote to district officials this week, arguing the display's presence on school property violates the Constitution. The foundation wants the monument -- about 6 feet tall, standing in front of the gymnasium entrance -- taken off public land. It was given to the district in 1957 by the New Kensington Eagles club.

"I am really upset," said New Kensington resident Mike Hresko, 58. "We have rights, too. Having these people from out of state tell us to remove a granite monument that you can't even see from the parking lot has gotten me really riled up."

Hresko planned to organize a rally for today to give residents who feel the same way "a chance to speak up" about their desire to keep the monument in place.

"This will be a peaceful thing," he said. "My thing is that this country was founded on Christian values and principles. Little by little, they're starting to take those things away. Eventually, there will be nothing left to show."

The Rev. Mitch Nickols, pastor at Bibleway Christian Fellowship in New Kensington, noted: "There were no tax dollars that put the monument there. If (the commandments) can be displayed in a courtroom or at a state capitol, there's no reason why that shouldn't be allowed there when it was presented by a non-school group."

Nickols said he understands the concern non-Christians might have but argued the display isn't meant to discriminate.

Monsignor Michael J. Begolly, pastor of Mount St. Peter Roman Catholic Church in New Kensington doesn't see a problem, either.

"Simply having the Ten Commandments on a monument ... you're not proselytizing, not trying to convert or force your beliefs on someone," Begolly said. "It's simply a statement of the values most in our society accept.

"In this community, I think most people believe in the Ten Commandments and try to live their life that way. There's nothing wrong with holding them that way -- as something we try to imitate."

Brian Fields, president of Pennsylvania Nonbelievers, an atheist group primarily active in central Pennsylvania, argued the display "has the effect of ostracizing people who are not part of that particular faith."

"This is just ... wow," Fields said. "I completely agree with the Freedom From Religion Foundation. This is something where the district clearly is in the wrong and needs to correct it. I haven't seen anything this blatant since the Dover trial."

In 2005, a federal judge ruled the Dover Area School Board violated the Constitution by inserting intelligent design into the science curriculum.

"This is so clear-cut, especially where schools are involved," Fields said. "Government is not allowed to take any position on the establishment of religion. I can't imagine any situation where a judge would support (the district.)"

Rabbi Yaier Lehrer of the Adat Shalom Synagogue in Indiana Township said one of the problem's with the monument is that it displays the Roman Catholic version of the Ten Commandments.

"There are several versions of the Ten Commandments, and that is part of the problem," he said. "Once you start picking and choosing which version is appropriate for students, you already are making a statement.

"This establishes a religious atmosphere in a public school. The Supreme Court has been very clear on that issue."

Safdar Khwaja, a American-Islamic Relation Pittsburgh Chapter board member, said he's not personally opposed to Ten Commandments displays on public land but that Muslims are "required to respect and obey local laws."

"The Ten Commandments are part of the Muslim belief system also," he said. "With the sole exception of the Sabbath being a work day off ... all the others are identical to our beliefs."

"It's the judicial system that will have to make the judgment as to whether something like this is proper, and that's where the rub is," Khwaja said. "If the legal system said it's not constitutional, we would respect the law."

"I'm a bit upset," said high school junior Zoee Ward of New Kensington. "I don't understand what the big deal is. It's not there to infringe on student rights; it's not there to impose Christianity on students."

Ward's mother, Leslie, teaches at Fort Crawford Elementary School, and her father, Dean, is the pastor at The River, a community church in New Kensington.

She said her friends are equally as upset.

"They know what the separation of church and state means," she said.

"And to be honest," she said, "a lot of students probably didn't even know the monument was there."

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