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Advocates of 10 Commandments at Connellsville school 'disappointed,' 'upset'

| Friday, Sept. 11, 2015, 1:26 a.m.
Eric Schmadel | Trib Toal Media
On Oct. 21, 2012, a crowd gathered for a candlelight vigil held to save the Ten Commandments monument on the grounds of Connellsville Area Junior High School.

In 1957, former Connellsville Eagles President Guy Tressler was instrumental in having a Ten Commandments monument placed on property of the current Connellsville Junior High School.

Today, he is amazed and disappointed.

Wednesday night, the Connellsville Area School Board said it will return the monument to the Connellsville Eagles.

The monument was boarded up in 2012 when a lawsuit was filed by the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation on behalf of a student in the district.

The decision sparked a movement known as Thou Shall Not Move to keep the monument on school grounds. The group raised money by selling more than 6,000 Ten Commandments lawn signs and purchased and placed 25 Ten Commandments monuments in the area.

However, Senior U.S. District Judge Terrence McVerry recently ruled the monument to be unconstitutional while on the school grounds. But the ruling did not force the district to move the monument.

The board this week said its decision to give the monument back to the Eagles was made to avoid future costly lawsuits to the already financially strapped school district.

“We surely don't have the money to fight against something like this,” said Connellsville Area School Director Kevin Lape.

Tressler was president of the Connellsville Eagles in 1956 and 1957.

“Had I known something like this was going to happen, I would have never thought of putting it up in Connellsville,” Tressler said.

The 92-year-old Connellsville man said he hasn't heard any reaction from current members of the Connellsville Eagles, but said he thought the judge's decision would be a stepping stone for the district to be one step ahead of the FFRF. But that isn't the case.

“What I read made me very disappointed,” Tressler said.

Chris Stern, school district solicitor, said the board's decision to return the monument to the Eagles was made while the board had control of where the monument can go. He said another lawsuit could take that control away.

On Thursday, the FFRF claimed victory in the board's decision.

“We're delighted that reason will prevail and school First Amendment precedent will be followed,” FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor said in a statement. “Returning these biblical edicts to the Eagles is the rational solution.”

Gary Colatch and David Show who were active in the Thou Shall Not Move group were shocked by the board's decision.

“They gave in to a bully,” said Colatch of Connellsville. “That was the saddest part.”

Colatch said he would have understood the board's decision if there were supporters from the community to move the monument. He said he never saw anyone protesting the school board to move the monument or showing up at a school board meeting to urge that it be moved.

“I'm upset they did this without an open discussion or community involvement,” Colatch said. “They had the community's support.”

Colatch was upset with the timing of the decision — less than a week after the death of the Rev. Ewing Marietta, who was a leader in Thou Shall Not Move.

Show, head of the Fayette County Republican Party and co-host with Colatch on a weekly radio show on WMBS, said the district mishandled the issue from the beginning.

“You fight the fights that need to be fought,” Show said. “But they took the path of least resistance.”

Show said he would rather fight a lawsuit than back down from a potential lawsuit.

Show cited the case in the New Kensington-Arnold School District in which the FFRF sued the district over its Ten Commandments monument on behalf a student and mother. McVerry, the same judge who ruled on the Connellsville lawsuit, dismissed it because the FFRF did not prove the monument caused sufficient harm to anyone.

“It was the same situation, but handled differently,” Show said. “They (the New Kensington-Arnold School District) openly defended it. They (the Connellsville Area School District) created this problem by being weak.”

The New Kensington-Arnold School District case didn't address if the monument was a prohibited government endorsement of religion or a permissible historical landmark.

Both Show and Colatch said the Connellsville board's decision could have implementations beyond the school district.

“This gave the FFRF more precedent and more reason for them to go into little communities to dictate their doctrine,” Colatch said.

“They (the FFRF) specifically single out areas like this because of weakness,” Show said, adding that parents in the school district should be livid and the community should continue to fight the issue.

Both Show and Colatch said they are working on setting up a meeting to see how Thou Shall Not move will respond on the issue.

Mark Hofmann is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-626-3539 or mhofmann@tribweb.com.

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