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Fayette County defends its way of life

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• Fayette County has used about $3.4 million in Marcellus shale impact fees generated under state Act 13, according to the Pennsylvania Public Utilities Commission. The biggest expenditures? Nearly $1.37 million deposited into its capital reserve fund, almost $982,000 for emergency preparedness and public safety, and about $559,000 for roads, bridges and infrastructure.

• Visitors spent $634 million in Fayette County in 2011, up from $595 million in 2010, according to the Pennsylvania Tourism Office, which attributes 5,295 jobs in the county to tourism.

• In 2011, Fayette County had 19.2 percent of its residents living below the poverty level, the second-highest such rate in Pennsylvania, trailing only Philadelphia, according to U.S. Census data.

• Fayette County has Pennsylvania's highest rate of households in distress, at 35.4 percent, according to the state Department of Labor and Industry.

Off Road Politics connects Washington with Main Street hosted by Salena Zito and Lara Brown PhD. Exclusive radio show on @TribLIVE

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Most people expect their tomorrows to be about the same as their yesterdays in this town, and in every other Fayette County village, borough and municipality.

And they like it that way.

Despite the county's higher-than-statewide-average poverty level, folks like being “stuck in place” in this picturesque region where the majestic Laurel Mountains give way to lakes, rivers and small coal-patch towns where ethnic-food church festivals fill the calendar year-round.

That geography boosts local tourism with plentiful biking, hiking, camping and fishing spots; it also boosts local jobs, thanks to the ripple effects of Marcellus shale exploration that is chipping away at the poverty.

Only two “cities” are here — Uniontown and Connellsville. The latter's school district is provoking folks, most of whom usually don't participate in public rallies or community activism, to step out of their comfort zones and straight onto the front lines of fighting to preserve their way of life.

That is all thanks to an anonymous complaint by an unnamed middle-school child and parent who are coordinating with a Wisconsin-based atheist group to rid the district of a Ten Commandments monument on Connellsville's school property.

Something remarkable happened in the county, as folks from different backgrounds and beliefs responded with a groundswell of support for the district. Even many who are not particularly religious have joined in.

“I have not heard from one person who has said they support any action to remove the Commandments from the school grounds,” said Vince Zapotosky, a Fayette County commissioner and Democrat who wants to keep the monument donated by Connellsville's Fraternal Order of Eagles in 1957.

He has heard from plenty who adamantly agree with him: “The community has rallied around the town of Connellsville. There have been monthly meetings and even a Ten Commandments-sign fundraising effort called ‘Thou Shall Not Move,' organized by Pastor Ewing Marietta, a minister from the Liberty Baptist Church.”

The complaint to the district was filed last August; by September, the district solicitor concluded that the law prohibits such a monument on school property. A court case is pending.

“First, (the monument) was covered with plastic and duct tape, but that was torn off,” said Zapotosky. That was repeated over and over, he said.

It's not the first time that the Freedom From Religion Foundation of Madison, Wis., has stuck a sharp elbow into Main Street towns in the region: Valley High School in New Kensington faces a similar challenge to remove its Ten Commandments monument; Steubenville, Ohio, was forced to scrub the iconic image of Franciscan University from a new city logo that included all of the city's well-known sites, including Fort Steuben and the Veterans Memorial Bridge.

The atheist group boasts of scores of legal victories on its website, most of those in small cities and rural towns in the Midwest and South.

Zapotosky said he has signed a resolution to keep the monument at the school, and he insists no one is trying to convert anyone: “It is something, if only symbolic, to hold and cherish as part of our values that go back to the founding of our nation.”

Indeed, Fayette County is the very spot where the seeds of democracy were sown — more a part of our country's founding than most Americans realize. It is where a young George Washington surrendered at “the great meadow” on July 4, 1754, marking the start of the French and Indian War, which led ultimately to our revolt against the British crown.

You cannot drive anywhere in Fayette County without finding Ten Commandments signs staked in front of homes and businesses, on corner lots and abandoned industrial sites, in mobile home parks and along the Great Allegheny Passage trail — an ironic twist that makes the Ten Commandments more visible than ever and has drawn together people whose normal instinct is to keep to themselves and get on with life.

Yet this battle between Main Street and the atheist group shows no sign of going away.

Just last week, the group placed a “Nothing Fails Like Prayer” banner in Wilkes-Barre — another example of a cultural war that is impacting the nation's landscape.

Salena Zito covers politics for Trib Total Media (412-320-7879 or

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