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Connellsville Area School District paid $64K in dispute to keep religious stone

| Monday, Dec. 28, 2015, 11:00 p.m.
Sean Stipp | Trib Total Media
Connellsville Area School District spent about $64,000 on lawyers defending itself from a lawsuit related to the Ten Commandments monument on district property. Bills from 2012 through 2014 were obtained through a Right-To-Know request. The monument was moved from Connellsville Junior High to Connellsville Church of God property on Falcon Drive, near Connellsville Area Senior High School.

Attorneys billed the Connellsville Area School District $64,000 to fight a federal lawsuit it initially intended to avoid by moving a stone monolith that bore the Ten Commandments when a parent complained it shouldn't be in front of a public junior high.

While the district lost in court, officials with the group responsible for urging it into the fight said it is something that had to be done.

“It doesn't matter what the cost was, it was a fight that needed to be fought,” said David Show of the grassroots organization Thou Shall Not Move. “That's something that should not be a problem in our schools.”

Bills obtained through a public records request by the Tribune-Review show that the Pittsburgh law firm Andrews & Price billed the district's insurance carrier for 400 hours of work related to the lawsuit between October 2012 and December 2014. Solicitor Chris Stern said the bills would be paid by the carrier, School Claims Insurance LLC of New Cumberland.

The most costly bill — for 100 hours amounting to $15,351 — accounted for work between July and October 2013. During that period, attorneys held several meetings with school officials and prepared numerous court documents for the case, according to the detailed bills. Information about how the claim would impact the district's insurance coverage costs was not available Monday.

“We warned the school district that we would win,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, which filed the suit on behalf of an anonymous seventh-grade student and her mother. “We're not in it to make money.”

At the beginning of the 2012-13 school year, the plaintiffs requested the district remove the 4 12-foot-tall monument off school property. District officials indicated then they planned to do so and covered the monument with plywood.

Outraged residents who would later form Thou Shall Not Move urged the district to keep the monolith in place, prompting the school district to reverse its decision to move the marker. The foundation filed the lawsuit in September 2012.

A federal judge ruled in August that the monolith's placement on school grounds was unconstitutional but did not order its removal because the family who objected no longer attends or visits the school.

Two weeks after the ruling that the 3,000-pound monument was an endorsement of a particular religion, school directors voted to return the marker to the Connellsville Fraternal Order of Eagles. The marker, donated by the Eagles lodge, had stood outside the school since 1957.

“We always hope that these cases aren't necessary,” said Patrick Elliott, the foundation staff attorney who worked on the case. “It's too bad that they didn't follow the law.”

A federal judge in July dismissed a similar lawsuit the foundation filed in 2012 against the New Kensington-Arnold School District challenging the constitutionality of a Ten Commandments monument outside Valley Junior-Senior High School in New Kensington. The judge ruled that the foundation failed to show that a resident and her daughter were harmed by the monolith that also had been donated by an Eagles lodge 50 years ago. The foundation is appealing the judge's decision.

Show, whose group placed 25 similar monuments at churches in the Connellsville area, said Thou Shall Not Move's mission has been put on hold since the death of its leader, the Rev. Ewing Marietta. Show criticized the school district for its response to the complaint about the marker from the outset.

“The people wanted that monument to stay,” he said.

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

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