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Local partner sought for Ten Commandments suit

| Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Given the school district's refusal to oblige, an atheist group wanting Valley High School's Ten Commandments monument removed needs local support if it hopes to accomplish its mission.

Appalled at hearing district officials intend to keep the display in place, Freedom From Religion Foundation co-founder Annie Laurie Gaylor said her group would sue but needs local residents to help take the case to court.

Describing the district's defiance as "ridiculous" and "unbelievable" and "preposterous," Gaylor said, "Cooler heads must prevail.

"We will pursue this, but we do need people in the district to become plaintiffs."

Patrick Elliott, a foundation lawyer, said a suit could go forward if brought by someone outside the district but would have more teeth if supported by residents.

The foundation sent the district a request last week that it remove the monument, arguing its presence on public property violates the separation of church and state called for in the Constitution.

Superintendent George Batterson said the district has received "thousands" of phone calls and emails from people supporting its decision to keep the display standing outside the gymnasium entrance.

Only a few people have contacted the district to express displeasure with its stance, he said.

The New Kensington Eagles aerie gave the monument to the district in 1957. Eagles aeries across the country donated similar monuments at the time to communities to promote Cecil B. Demille's biblical epic, The Ten Commandments," starring Charlton Heston.

Sell the land?

Some have offered to buy the small parcel where the monument sits, arguing it can remain there if the land is private property, Batterson said.

"We'll have to look into that option and determine if it's something that can be done," district Solicitor Tony Vigilante said. "But that's premature at this point until we hear from the Freedom From Religion Foundation as to how it plans to proceed."

New Kensington Eagles Secretary Marc Hoak said he has kicked around the idea of leasing the parcel from the district but needs to investigate the legalities: "It's a thought. I haven't discussed it with the district because, at this point, I don't really know how to handle it."

Bruce Ledewitz, a Duquesne University law professor, suggested the district might not need to go as far as transferring ownership of the property.

"This is kind of a passive display compared to a lot of others," he said. "I'm not sure I would go to the trouble of selling the land. I would try to defend it first."

Ledewitz said there are a few factors that might convince the courts to let the monument remain. Those include the fact it has stood for more than 50 years without a community uprising, has a secular origin in its connection to Hollywood and not much draws attention to it.

He noted the courts have refused to strike down every Ten Commandments display, citing such grounds as their history and influence.

"I don't think this is a slam dunk even though, maybe, it ought to be under government neutrality," Ledewitz said.

Additional Information:

Rally planned

New Kensington resident Mike Hresko plans to hold a 'Save the Stone' rally on Wednesday.

Hresko, who intended to hold a rally last weekend but canceled, said the event will begin at 5 p.m. at the monument site.

Hresko has said he is upset with an atheist group's request to have the Ten Commandments monument removed and wants to organize support for having it remain.

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