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Federal judge does not order removal of Ten Commandments monument from Connellsville school

| Friday, Aug. 28, 2015, 1:48 p.m.

A federal judge Friday determined a Ten Commandments monument on the grounds of a Fayette County school endorses religion but didn't order its removal.

Without a court order deciding the monument's fate, both sides declared victory.

Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-founder of a Wisconsin foundation that filed the lawsuit, said the judge's finding forces Connellsville Area School District to remove the 3,000-pound stone monument from outside the entrance to the junior high school auditorium.

“They have to remove it,” said Gaylor, of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for the separation of church and state. “It runs afoul of the Constitution, as Judge McVerry clearly states.”

Kevin O'Donnell, acting superintendent for the school district, gave no indication the monument will be moved. He said the judge's decision appears to be a “compromise” that allows it to stay.

“Personally and for the sake of the board and the community, I'm delighted that the statue is able to stay,” O'Donnell said. “The judge made a wise decision. The statue wasn't hurting anything.”

In an opinion and order handed down Friday, Senior U.S. District Judge Terrence F. McVerry said the monument “runs afoul of the Establishment clause…” of the First Amendment.

“This ruling is in no way meant to denigrate the sincerely held religious beliefs of the citizens and elected officials in the Connellsville community who rallied in support of keeping the monument,” McVerry wrote. “When, however, our government, at whatever level, departs from mere acknowledgement of religious history to endorsement of a particular religious message, as set forth in the Ten Commandments, it has gone too far.”

McVerry did not order the monument to be removed because the family who objected to its presence no longer attends or visits the school, according to the 50-page opinion in U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh.

McVerry ordered only that the district pay the family $1 in nominal damages.

Marc Schneider, a Pittsburgh attorney who represented the Freedom From Religion Foundation, said he was optimistic the decision would prompt the district to remove the monument immediately.

“We view it as a clear victory, when you have a U.S. district court determining a monument is unconstitutional,” Schneider said. “We would hope the district would respect that and remove it immediately. (Otherwise), it's just inviting more litigation, and I would hope not to see more dollars used on something at this point that has been decided.”

John M. Burkoff, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh who is not directly involved with the case, said even though the judge didn't order the monument be removed, doing so is in the district's best interest legally.

If not, the district is at risk of another lawsuit from students who still attend the junior high, he said.

“Even without a formal order, the school district should be on notice, unless it wants to siphon away more of its funds on litigation, it should follow the court's dictate and take it down,” Burkoff said.

The Rev. Ewing Marietta, a Baptist pastor and leader of the “Thou Shalt Not Move” group, suggested the district leave the monument in place and fend off any future legal challenges.

“Let's uncover it,” Marietta said. “This is an opportunity to let it be known we are not afraid of anybody. This is Connellsville's history. This is the historical foundation of our country.”

Jon Detwiler, school board president, and the district's attorney, John W. Smart of Pittsburgh, could not be reached for comment.

In 2012, Gaylor's organization filed the lawsuit on behalf of an unnamed seventh-grader and her mother, a former substitute teacher at the school.

Donated in 1957 by the Connellsville Eagles, the 4½-foot tall monument fronts a parking lot where school buses drop off and pick up students. The seventh-grader encountered it during gym class and a fire drill, which she told the court “bothered her because she is not religious.”

Schneider said the Connellsville decision should result in a favorable outcome for the freedom from religion group in a similar lawsuit that challenges the constitutionality of a Ten Commandments monument in front of Valley Junior-Senior High School in New Kensington.

In that case, McVerry dismissed the case when he found the plaintiffs did not have standing, but the group has an appeal pending in the Third Circuit.

Liz Zemba is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-601-2166 or lzemba@tribweb.com.

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