Philadelphia Chapter Wins Decalog Lawsuit (April 2002)

The Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia and plaintiff Sally Flynn won their federal lawsuit challenging a Ten Commandments plaque at the entrance to the Chester County courthouse, in a ruling handed down on March 6.
The society, a chapter of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, was represented by Stefan Presser of the American Civil Liberties Union.

U.S. District Judge Stewart Dalzell, following a two-day trial in Philadelphia, issued a 25-page decision ordering removal of the 82-year-old bronze plaque engraved with the King James version of the Ten Commandments.

“We cannot pretend that the tablet’s words do not mean what they say, or forget the sincere religious impulse of both the donors and the donees in 1920,” wrote Dalwell. The 50″x39″ tablet advances and endorses “mainline Protestantism,” he added.
“Disestablishment is not a lonely First Amendment redoubt occupied only by some federal judges and a few malcontents. It is in historical fact as American as the free exercise of religion.”

Principal plaintiff Sally Flynn, 72, of Pocopson, told media she was “elated” over the victory.

Presser commented: “I am convinced that this nation has been spared the kind of sectarian violence we’ve seen in Ireland, the Balkans, the Middle East and Afghanistan because of the Establishment Clause, which was vindicated today.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Margaret Downey, chapter director, received a threatening phone call the day after the decision, from a man who laced his remarks with obscenities, and warned: “You’re going to get it.”

“It was a pretty horrible phone call,” Downey said. She retrieved the phone number from Caller ID and reported the threat to police. County officials condemned the threat.

“I really do think this gives the lie to the commissioners’ position that this is not a religious issue,” Presser told the Inquirer. “People don’t threaten to hurt other people over secular documents.”

Flynn testified she had been the target of harassment since the lawsuit was filed in October 2001, purchasing Caller ID devices and removing her name from her house and mailbox.

Also testifying: Downey; Kalid Yahya Blankinship, chair of Temple University’s religion department, a practising Muslim, and Rabbi Leonard Gordon, a former professor of comparative religion, who said the decalog carries less weight with Jews than the Talmud, and considers that the Commandments plaque shows a Christian orientation.

During the trial, Presser pointed out that of 71 letters received by the Commission about the lawsuit, only one favored removing the plaque, while many supporters employed religious language, such as: “It is time for a Christian nation to stand up for its God-given rights.”

Presser said: “You would concede that these people don’t see this as a secular issue.”

The Chester County Commissioners almost immediately voted to appeal the decision. While most similar lawsuits are challenging monoliths erected by the Fraternal Order of Eagles in the late 1950s and early 1960s, this violation significantly predates the religious campaign by the Eagles.

A group called the Council of Religious Education in West Chester, a coalition of churches, installed the plaque in 1920.

Freedom From Religion Foundation