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Connellsville school district attorneys defend Ten Commandments monolith

| Monday, Dec. 3, 2012, 2:20 p.m.

A lawsuit seeking to force a Fayette County school district to remove a Ten Commandments monument from school grounds should be dismissed because the monument is more secular than religious, and its outdoor location means students aren't forced to read it, according to school district attorneys.

In a federal lawsuit, the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation is seeking to force Connellsville Area School District to remove the monument from outside its junior high school. Filed on behalf of an anonymous student and parent, the foundation's lawsuit claims the monument on school grounds violates their constitutional rights. In addition, they claim a church's offer to move the monument to their property near the school would violate their rights because it would remain in view of students.

In a response to the lawsuit filed on Monday, the district's attorneys contend the donated monument does not endorse any religion because it is inscribed with a nonsectarian version of the Commandments.

In addition, it contains various nonsectarian symbols, including an Egyptian “all-seeing eye,” flowers, a bald eagle, two Stars of David, the Greek letters “chi” and “rho” and the U.S. flag, wrote Pittsburgh attorneys John W. Smart and Amie A. Thompson.

The Connellsville Eagles donated the 5- to 6-foot-tall monument to the district in 1957. It was one of “many” other such monuments donated nationwide to towns and cities in the 1950s and 1960s that sought “to provide troubled youth with a common code of conduct,” the attorneys wrote.

To support its argument, the foundation cited a 1980 Supreme Court ruling that found it to be unconstitutional to display copies of the Ten Commandments in individual classrooms of Kentucky public schools, even if the plaques were purchased through private funding.

Connellsville's attorneys contend that ruling was based on a finding that classroom postings “encouraged children to meditate upon the Ten Commandments during the school day.” Because Connellsville's plaque is outside, the “passive monument cannot be seen as coercive,” the attorneys wrote.

“Those concerns are absent here, where the Eagles' Ten Commandments monument is displayed outside the school district and does not lend itself to meditation,” the district's attorneys wrote.

“Furthermore, the pre-eminent purpose of the long-standing Eagles' Ten Commandments monument, which is inscribed with symbols such as the American flag and bald eagle, is predominantly secular and illustrative of moral and historic ideals,” they said.

The monument has been covered with plywood, pending the outcome of the lawsuit.

If the judge does not dismiss the lawsuit in its entirety, Connellsville's attorneys want thrown out portions that make reference to third-party actions centered on the monument. Those actions include unknown people uncovering the monument and rallies held in support of it.

Liz Zemba is a reporter for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-601-2166 or lzemba@tribweb.com.

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