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Group sues to remove Ten Commandments from Connellsville school

| Friday, Sept. 28, 2012, 1:16 a.m.
Wendy Schomer of Connellsville, a member of New Life Tabernacle Church in Keisterville, somberly stands at the Ten Commandments monument Monday at Connellsville Area Junior High School as the Rev. Ewing Marietta addresses the crowd. Nearly 150 community members gathered at the monument, donated in 1957 by the Connellsville Fraternal Order of Eagles, for a prayer rally in hopes of keeping the monument where it stands. Evan R. Sanders | Daily Courier -- on Monday, September 10, 2012.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, along with an anonymous parent and student on Thursday filed a lawsuit against the Connellsville Area School District seeking to have a Ten Commandments monument removed from Connellsville Junior High and to block its placement at a nearby church.

In a lawsuit, the plaintiffs claimed constitutional violations with the religious marker at the public school and possible further infringement on their rights if the monument is relocated near district property.

“To the plaintiffs, the monument excludes them and others ... who do not follow the particular religion or god that the monument endorses,” attorney Marcus Schneider wrote in the suit.

Steele Schneider Attorneys at Law in Pittsburgh filed the suit in U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh. The plaintiffs include the Wisconsin-based foundation that advocates for separation of church and state and the student and parent who were referred to as “Doe 4” and “Doe 5,” respectively, “to protect themselves from injury.”

The suit identifies the student as non-religious and the parent as an atheist.

In August, the district received two requests — one from the Americans United for Separation of Church and State and an unidentified parent through Steele Schneider — for the monolith's removal.

The district originally planned to comply and covered the monument several times with plastic and plywood, only to have it ripped off.

Neighboring Connellsville Church of God offered to take the monument, which was donated in 1957 by the Connellsville Eagles, and place it near athletic fields the district rents from the church.

After residents held protests and rallies in favor of keeping the monument in place, the school board voted on Sept. 12 to delay a decision concerning the monument, pending further legal action.

District Solicitor Christopher Stern declined to comment on the lawsuit on Thursday because he had not seen it and had not discussed the matter with board members.

“The feeling of exclusion effectuated by the monument's presence on school property has been stressful on both (the student and parent),” the suit says. “The plaintiffs perceive the Ten Commandments monument as an endorsement by the district of the religious principles set forth on the monument.”

The suit cites a 1980 Supreme Court ruling that it is unconstitutional to display copies of the Ten Commandments in Kentucky public schools, even if the plaques were purchased through private funding.

“(The parent) believes that the religious or non-religious upbringing of her child is her own personal right and responsibility, not the right or responsibility of the district,” according to the suit.

Community uprisings over the monument “further signal to plaintiffs that they are outsiders in the district and that the district favors the religious beliefs endorsed by the Ten Commandments monument,” it states.

Though the monolith would be on private property if moved to the church, the fact that the district is aware that the monument could be erected again for religious purposes could pose a problem, said Sara Rose, staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union in Pittsburgh.

The challenge would not be against its placement; “it would be more the conveyance of the monument to the church,” Rose said.

The foundation and two other parents are suing the New Kensington-Arnold School District over a similar Eagles-donated Ten Commandments monument in front of Valley High School.

In that suit, filed on Sept. 17, one parent is named and a second parent and two children are referred to as “Doe 1,” “Doe 2” and “Doe 3.” The school board was expected to discuss the matter during a meeting Thursday.

Renatta Signorini is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-837-5374 or

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