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Judge declines to dismiss Ten Commandments suit

| Thursday, March 7, 2013, 2:39 p.m.

A federal lawsuit seeking to have a Ten Commandments monument removed from the grounds of Connellsville Area Junior High School can continue.

In a court ruling issued on Thursday, U.S. District Judge Terrence McVerry refused to dismiss the lawsuit filed by the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, which contended the monument violated the U.S. Constitution's division of church and state provision.

“At this stage, the court retains the power to hear the case irrespective of the propriety of the challenged factual allegations and legal conclusions,” McVerry wrote.

Attorneys for the school district had argued the monument was not a religious symbol as it contained other images such as an eagle grasping an American flag.

School district lawyers Amie Thompson and John Smart could not be reached for comment on Thursday.

The monument was donated to the school district in 1957 by a local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Eagles.

School district officials covered the monument with plywood pending the outcome of the lawsuit.

In his 24-page decision, the judge ruled that additional time is needed for each side of the issue to build a sufficient factual record to support its position.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has filed numerous similar lawsuits across the United States, among them one that challenges a Ten Commandments monument in the New Kensington-Arnold School District. The group wants the federal court to order it removed from school property and enjoin the district from relocating it to an adjacent property that is owned by a church.

The Connellsville lawsuit was filed in September by the foundation on behalf of an anonymous parent, identified as an atheist. The parent sued on behalf of a child at the school, who was described as nonreligious.

McVerry ordered the school district to file a formal response to the lawsuit by March 21.

In his ruling, the judge said the decision was similar to his findings in the New Kensington Ten Commandments case, which he allowed to move forward in January.

Rich Cholodofsky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-830-6293 or rcholodofsky@tribweb.com.

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