Thou shalt Defend Thy First Amendment (Jan/Feb 2003)

Thank you, Mr. Mole and the Freedom From Religion Foundation. It often seems that in maintaining the separation of church and state, it’s an unpopular struggle.

My family and I received a lot of criticism and harrassment for my actions involving the city and county of Frederick, Maryland, and their Ten Commandments monument. But it is very exciting to be here with a group of people who believe so strongly in the First Amendment, and I am extremely honored to receive this award.

I’d also like to thank the people who nominated me. I think it’s such a compliment that people would consider what I did this important. I would never have thought that simply writing a letter to my local government would create such interest and spark such a huge debate, and even a federal lawsuit.

I’d like to tell you a little bit about what happened. I first noticed the monument last summer, walking through Memorial Grounds Park. It sits across from Baker Park, which is a large municipal park that I spend a lot of time at, walking the dog, attending the Fourth of July festivities, etc.

I noticed this monument because it sits facing a one-way street, so it’s visible from traffic, and I often wondered how this could be constitutional. I was listening to NPR, and I heard a story about a challenge to a similar situation in Elkhart, Indiana.
Our civil liberties and the separation of church and state have been very important to me, and have always interested me. So I did some research, reading case law, reading the FFRF website and the ACLU website. I also went to the courthouse and the county government buildings, and actually found the deed for Memorial Park in the basement of City Hall in some engineer’s office. It was under all the records.

I also researched the monument. I found out that it was one of many that was distributed throughout the 1950s by the Fraternal Order of Eagles. In the 1940s, a judge in Minnesota was upset by the number of juvies that were coming before him. And he asked one boy if he knew the Ten Commandments, which he didn’t. So obviously the problem was that kids didn’t know the Ten Commandments, that’s why they were getting in trouble.

He wanted to post paper copies in juvenile courts throughout the country. He approached the Eagles to help.

The Eagles agreed, about the time that producer Cecil B. DeMille contacted the judge. He was very interested because he was working on his movie, “The Ten Commandments,” starring Charlton Heston. He thought that instead of paper copies, they should post monuments. The judge started working with a few Minnesotan quarries to produce these.

Local chapters of the Eagles would raise money, and then donate these monuments to their local municipalities. Apparently what happened in Frederick is the local chapter donated one which sat in front of the county courthouse for a long time, until the ’80s when a new courthouse was built and the old one became City Hall. This monument was moved to Memorial Park, dedicated to the veterans of Frederick County, which includes monuments from most conflicts that Frederick County residents fought in the armed services.

After doing this research, I compiled a letter and sent it to all the county commissioners, all the city alders, and the mayor of the city. I outlined the constitutional concerns and requested a response. I didn’t really expect one, and went back to my schoolwork.

Two weeks later I got a call from an alderman, Dave Lenhart. He was strongly opposed to doing anything with the monument. He’d even contacted attorneys in D.C.–actually, Pat Robertson’s ACLJ–and basically said that nothing was going to happen. But he was shocked to learn that I was 18.

A few weeks later, I came home from school to find out that I had calls from Ald. Ramsburg and the mayor of the city. They’d called because reporters were calling, and they wanted to know if I could speak to them.

Then I realized something was happening here. Apparently my letter had created some sort of a debate within the city that had been going on for weeks. My letter was passed to the legal department, which read it, and agreed with what I had said, that the monument wouldn’t stand up to a constitutional test in court. This enraged Ald. Lenhart, who’d called me earlier, and he gave my letter to Bob Tansey, the head of the Frederick County Christian Coalition.

Tansey then went to the press, and everything blew up. Reporters were calling constantly. I did interviews on my way to school, at school, and on my way home from school. I walked out of one advanced placement political science test to be greeted by a TV news crew, and then had to turn around and walk back in to take my environmental science test. I was woken up at 6 a.m. for early morning talk shows, and did many interviews and debates.

I was on several local TV stations and radio stations and the story was being followed by local and regional papers like the Frederick News Post, the Washington Post, the Washington Times, the Baltimore Sun. Editorials were pretty negative. One referred to me as “the snot-nosed kid” and argued that the Salem witch trials were proof that this nation was founded on Christianity. Another told me to simply keep my mouth shut and learn something.

The letters to the editor were similar. Most suggested that I had no idea what I was talking about because I was only 18. Most of them thought it was a school project or something like that, and they were all shocked that this was even being taken seriously.
“It’s obvious,” they said, “Frederick County is a Christian county.”

Bob Tansey, the head of the Frederick County Christian Coalition, made the most interesting commentary: “It’s absolutely absurd that we should listen to an 18-year-old. I wonder if he voted and I doubt he pays taxes.” My favorite, though, was when I turned on the TV to hear him spit, “If he were my son, I’d take him out to the woodshed.”

A few, though, were very supportive. One of the most interesting was a call from an elderly woman in West Virginia who’d been following the controversy. She talked to my mother for about 45 minutes, and was very supportive. More recently, a husband and wife called and just wanted to thank me.

The majority of calls, however, were extremely rude. Even the reporters covering the story would get threatening phone calls. They screamed obscenities at me and my parents, they called repeatedly at all hours of the day and night. One screamed at my mom, “How does it feel to raise a Communist?” This was at six o’clock in the morning.

I did one debate-style program on a local radio station with Bob Tansey and Ald. Dave Lenhart. While I was being interviewed on the air, my mother went to talk to them. Tansey told her that she should be embarrassed by me. He said that I had no idea what I was talking about, that I was ignorant. He said that since I probably don’t vote or pay taxes–and I do both–that I should have no say in the government.

Her response was that Tansey would have no problem putting a gun in my hand and sending me off to war, seeing that I was 18.

Lenhart then told her that this was just the beginning of it, that they had a whole agenda. They wanted to require teachers to lead student prayers next. As a teacher, my mother was very disturbed by this, and argued that teachers should not be put in this kind of position. His response was that “sometimes we have to do things we don’t agree with.”

Luckily the city has no control over the schools. But soon after, he introduced a requirement that all city meetings begin with a prayer. Unfortunately, this was passed over the strong objections of our mayor.

I was contacted by a group called Frederick Secular Humanists, or FRESH. They were very supportive and very courteous, and they were willing to help me in any way possible.

I called the ACLU after they were quoted in numerous articles about what I was doing, and they were very interested. They sent letters to the city and the county, outlining some more precedents for the removal of the monument, and asking that something be done. They suggested that they could sell the land or move the monument, but that the issue needed to be resolved. The city and county refused to even respond to the letters.

The Frederick Secular Humanists, in the meantime, wanted to hold a forum for the issue, to discuss it and educate the public with debaters. They had funding and extremely credible debaters on each side. The only place that was big enough, however, to hold this was the chambers of the Frederick County Commission. This was routinely rented out, and FRESH filled out the appropriate forms and was given permission to rent it.

One county commissioner, however, found out about this, and was outraged. He publicly stated that he was appalled that atheists would be allowed into government buildings. That one blew me.
They voted and FRESH was not allowed to hold a meeting there. FRESH declined to pursue legal action. They did not want to cause more trouble.

The city and the county had planned to hold their own joint meeting to discuss the issue. It was intended that both sides could be heard and there could be public comment. What happened, though, was these county commissioners unilaterally pulled out of the meeting. Two of the commissioners were away when they held the vote, and the remaining three voted to quash the discussion, citing the emotional nature of the issue and claiming that the debate would be too heated.

Immediately after voting, however, they went directly to a rally on the steps of City Hall to save the monument. At this rally, many politicians from the area were present, as well as a local pastor who gave an inflammatory speech, calling me “an evil force in this county.”

The majority of the county commissioners were determined to draw a lawsuit, and some city aldermen wanted to do the same. Dave Lenhart in particular was very keen in drawing a lawsuit, and that the city be represented by the ACLJ. He thought this would go all the way to the Supreme Court. He thought this was the greatest thing ever.

Some city alders wanted to actually remove the monument, but unfortunately, there was such heat in the county and city that they were afraid to speak up. Many in the city administration simply wanted to resolve the issue.

After getting no response from its letter, the ACLU said that it would file suit if the issue was not resolved. The county once again refused to do anything. The city attempted to avoid a lawsuit by rededicating the park as Memorial Grounds Park and calling it a Christian burial ground. Next on the agenda, they voted to start all meetings with a prayer.

Rededicating the park really changed nothing for the constitutional matters involved. The monument had nothing to do with the people that were buried there.

Actually, very interesting, the pastor of the church that originally donated the land, whose cemetery it was, has come out and preached sermons about why this monument should be removed. Pretty bravely, he said that the separation of church and state needs to be maintained.

But the issue of the government maintaining Christian burial grounds simply opens up a host of additional constitutional questions, and this change did nothing. The ACLU filed suit, naming myself and another Frederick city resident as plaintiffs. Recently the city and the county were granted an extension for responding to the lawsuit until after the local elections. They have yet to respond.

A group calling itself Friends of Frederick was started, claiming to be fundraising for defense of the monument. It’s heavily tied to local politicians, especially the ultra-conservative local state senator, who wants to make it legal to discriminate against gays.
This event took part during “In the Streets,” which is a celebration of Frederick run by the city and includes a parade. Friends of Frederick was granted a permit, but misrepresented themselves in their application. According to the rules, you’re not allowed to engage in politics during the parade, you’re not allowed to fundraise during the parade, and they did both. Their banner said “Save the Monument” and asked for donations. This turned into a huge fiasco. They were told to stop but they were not told why, and one politician ended up shoving a police officer and was detained.

It’s clear, though, that emotions are still running high, even after all these months. After the parade, they held a rally in Memorial Grounds Park where the same pastor that was at the City Hall rally spoke. This was occurring during the sniper attacks in the D.C. metro area. He claimed that the reason this was happening was that the perpetrator had not had the Ten Commandments hanging on the walls of his school, so he didn’t know he wasn’t supposed to kill people.

The latest news actually came out yesterday, while I was packing up to leave here. The city alders, in a split vote 2-2–the tie was broken by the mayor–voted to sell the land that the monument sits on. I spoke with an attorney from the ACLU on the flight out here, and details haven’t quite been hammered out yet.

But it’s encouraging, because the city is taking positive steps to resolve the constitutional issues posed by the monument. I think that’s definitely a big victory here, just moving in the right direction.

The huge response that was generated by my letter, and the actions and the debates that followed, were very unexpected. I had no idea any of this was going to happen. It’s been a positive experience for me. There has been an enormous amount of debate and discussion in my county, talking about the First Amendment and how our county deals with people who don’t adhere to the majority religious views.

For me, it’s shown me that, well, as corny as it sounds, one person can really effect a change, simply by writing a letter and taking on an issue, and that one person can really do something.

Thank you.

Blake Trettien, 18, received a $1,000 cash award when he was named one of the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s 2002 student activists at the 25th annual convention. He was one of 11 valedictorians at Urbana High School, Frederick, Md. He is a first-year student at Johns Hopkins University.

Maryland ACLU Agrees to Sale

The ACLU of Maryland announced in early December it would drop its lawsuit against officials in Frederick, Md., after the city said it would sell the land where a Ten Commandments monument sits.

Appraised at $6,700, the 10-by-50-foot tract adjoins a public memorial park. Five offers have been received. The lawsuit was initiated by then-high school student Blake Trettien last summer.

Freedom From Religion Foundation