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Wisconsin group argues against Ten Commandments at Fayette school

| Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2013, 10:00 a.m.
Connellsville Area School District Superintendent Dan Lujetic addresses questions in September while standing near a monument that bears the Ten Commandments, a donation from the Fraternal Order of Eagles dating back to 1957. Evan R. Sanders | Daily Courier

A Ten Commandments monument on the grounds of Connellsville Junior High School differs from others in public places because children cannot help but see it as they attend required classes, according to a Wisconsin-based group that wants the monument to be removed.

“That these impressionable young students encounter this monument frequently is significant,” attorneys wrote in a legal brief seeking to prevent dismissal of the group's federal civil rights lawsuit. “The monument is not labeled ‘The Ten Suggestions.' In large font it says, 'the Ten Commandments.' The monument proclaims, ‘I am the LORD thy God' and lists 10 religious edicts.”

Donated by the Connellsville Eagles, the 6-foot-tall stone monument stood unchallenged outside the junior high school for 55 years until September, when the Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a civil lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh seeking its removal. Filed on behalf of an anonymous parent and student, the foundation's lawsuit contends the monument violates the First Amendment, which holds that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.

In seeking to dismiss the case, attorneys for the school district argued, among other reasons, that the monument should stay because it is more secular than religious. Courts in other cases found that similar monuments on government-owned property do not violate the establishment clause, they argued, including one at the Texas State Capitol that survived a Supreme Court challenge.

In its brief, the foundation said the Texas case does not apply to Connellsville because Texas' monument is in a park with 38 others of a historical nature. Connellsville's stands alone, the foundation argued, and its location outside the school's auditorium forces students — required by law to go to school — to view it as they attend outdoor gym classes or board and exit buses.

“At a high level, this case addresses a large, stone Ten Commandments monument displayed prominently on public school grounds within view of impressionable junior high school students, not a Ten Commandments monument located on large, open public grounds, among a number of other monuments, where passers-by may avoid the display,” the foundation's attorneys wrote.

“The courts of the United States have, over many years, drawn a clear distinction between the treatment of religious display cases in the public school setting and those cases involving religious display on other public grounds.”

The foundation notes the Supreme Court historically has “recognized a heightened vigilance” in reviewing “religious displays on public school grounds where impressionable children are in attendance.”

No court has found a Ten Commandments' display at a public school to be constitutional, its attorneys said in the brief.

Community response to the foundation's request to have the monument removed has only bolstered its contention the monument sends a religious message, the attorneys said. That response has included rallies, vigils, pleas to the school board to keep the monument in place after initially saying it would be taken down, and the repeated removal of covers that the district placed over the monument until the court case is resolved.

“This conduct supports the plausibility of plaintiffs' claims that the other members of plaintiffs' community ascribe religious importance to the monument and that defendant's decision to keep the monument is rooted in its favoring a particular religion,” the attorneys wrote in the 33-page brief.

The anonymous parent is an atheist, according to the lawsuit. The student is nonreligious. The foundation's attorneys contend the two “do not subscribe to the idea that they are commanded to follow the edicts on the monument, and they are offended by 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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