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Wisconsin atheist group targets Valley's display of Ten Commandments

| Friday, March 23, 2012

A Ten Commandments monument in front of Valley High School is an "egregious" violation of the separation between church and state, according to a Wisconsin-based atheist group seeking to have the school district remove it.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation sent district officials a letter this week asking them to remove the stone monument, which the New Kensington Fraternal Order of Eagles donated to the district decades ago. The nearly 6-foot-high monument sits prominently in front of the entrance to the school's gymnasium.

Annie Laurie Gaylor, the foundation's co-founder, said the monument's location definitely violates the Constitution. She said the foundation would file a lawsuit to force the district's hand if necessary.

"This is not something we can let stay," she said. "This isn't a minor violation. The law is totally clear. There really should be no need to sue."

Superintendent George Batterson said the district has no immediate plans to remove the monument and suspected the issue would end up in court.

"We're not happy with them asking us to take down the Ten Commandments," Batterson said.

In its letter, the foundation accuses the district of violating the First Amendment's establishment clause, which deals with separation of church and state. It cites court decisions, notably the 1980 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Stone v. Graham, which found that public schools can't display religious messages or iconography.

"From my view, this is an unsurprising letter given the law," said Vic Walczak, legal director of the Pennsylvania American Civil Liberties Union. "The Supreme Court decided on this more than 30 years ago."

Walczak said instances of public schools disregarding the court's decision in the Pittsburgh region are rare.

"I don't really recall a previous Ten Commandments complaint," he said. "There might have been one or two in the 20 years I've been here. The law is just that clear."

Batterson said he received the foundation's letter on Wednesday and presented it to the school board during a private session before Thursday's board meeting. The letter was not discussed during the public meeting.

Board Vice President Jason Fularz said the board asked district Solicitor Tony Vigilante to review the letter and make a recommendation on how to proceed.

Fularz said he otherwise had no comment on the foundation's request, other than to express surprise that it was an issue. He said he is unaware of any complaints lodged about the monument during his 13 years on the school board.

Board President Bob Pallone didn't return a call for comment and was absent from last night's meeting.

School officials weren't certain when the monument was erected, but believe it predates a 1971 addition to the high school. They noted the monument also includes the Star of David, a traditionally Jewish symbol.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation's letter states the Ten Commandments inscribed on the monument are a historically Roman Catholic version that not only could alienate non-Christians, but also Christians who are not Catholic.

"I feel it should stay," New Kensington Eagles Secretary Marc Hoak said.

"This is our creed and our motto," Hoak added. "I hope (the district) doesn't consider this group's request. It seems like they want to take away all of our social values in this country."

According to the foundation's letter, "This monument was brought to our attention by a local student who witnessed the monument when visiting Valley High School."

Gaylor refused to identify the student.

According to its website, the foundation is fighting a legal battle against the school board in Giles County, Va., to remove a Ten Commandments display from Narrows High School.

The foundation was in the news in Western Pennsylvania in December when it forced Ellwood City to move its Christmas Nativity scene from borough property under the threat of a lawsuit.

Gaylor said the foundation also plans to file a federal lawsuit against the Pennsylvania General Assembly's resolution declaring 2012 as the "Year of the Bible." She said the suit should be filed no later than Monday.

Walczak said the ACLU tries to "change the facts" to help people understand why it supports efforts to protect constitutional rights.

"If they placed a Moses tablet or something from the Koran in front of the school, would the parents react differently?" he said. "They wouldn't like that, and they shouldn't like this."

Walczak said the ACLU isn't directly involved with the foundation's request. Gaylor said the organizations "often work in concert" because they share similar concerns.

Bruce Antkowiak, a law professor at Saint Vincent College, said arguments could be made for both sides if the case plays out in court.

"The court would have to consider whether or not the display represents the intent on the part of a public body the school district to promote religion."

Antkowiak referenced a court case in Texas in which the constitutionality of having the Ten Commandments posted at the state house in Austin was challenged. He said the Supreme Court determined the display's significance was historical and not intended to advance a religious cause so it could remain.

"If this would go to litigation if they can't work something out I'm sure that's what the school board is going to be arguing that this is a matter of almost a historical anomaly and wasn't erected for the purpose of promoting any religious group or value."

He said the fact that the monument doesn't sit near a display of a secular nature could work against the district.

"To me, it would be very interesting to see how the court can resolve the issue, given the balance of the factors," Antkowiak said.

Staff writer Liz Hayes contributed.

Additional Information:

Battling beliefs

1989: The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a crèche, or nativity scene, on the grand staircase inside the Allegheny County Courthouse violated the Constitution's establishment clause because its primary message was religious. However, the court said an 18-foot Hanukkah menorah outside the City-County Building, Downtown, was permitted because officials displayed it beside a 45-foot Christmas tree and a banner saluting liberty.

2004 : A federal appeals court rules that a plaque of the Ten Commandments on an outside wall of the Allegheny County Courthouse does not violate the separation of church and state because the 1918 plaque was part of history and that its location at the Fifth Avenue entrance is not prominent enough to send a message of religious endorsement.

2011: Ellwood City Council votes to move a holiday display containing a crèche off public property to avert a lawsuit by the Freedom From Religion Foundation. The group threatened to sue because officials refused to include its banner next to the display declaring that religion is 'myth and superstition.'

Additional Information:

New Kensington rally

A New Kensington man said he is organizing a rally for Saturday to keep the Ten Commandments memorial at Valley High School.

Mike Hresko, 58, who said he has a daughter attendning the high school, said he's holding the rally to give residents 'a chance to speak up' about their desire to keep the monument in place.

'I am really upset,' Hresko, 58, said. 'We have rights, too. Having these people from (Wisconsin) tell us to remove a granite monument that you can't even see from the parking lot has gotten me really riled up.'

He said the United States was founded on Christian values and principles and that needs to be continbued.

'Little by little they're starting to take those things away,' Hresko said. 'Eventually there will be nothing left to show.'

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