FFRF sues school districts over Ten Commandments

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has filed two lawsuits that contest Ten Commandments monuments at Pennsylvania schools. One suit was filed Sept. 27 in U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh against the Connellsville Area School District for a marker at a junior high school.

FFRF, on behalf of two local “Doe” plaintiffs, seeks a declaration that the display is unconstitutional and should be removed. FFRF is also named as a plaintiff in both suits.

A similar federal suit was filed Sept. 14 against the New Kensington-Arnold School District for maintaining a Ten Commandments monument at Valley High School in New Kensington. FFRF first sent a letter of complaint in March about the illegal monument. 

The Fraternal Order of Eagles donated the slabs to both schools in the mid 1950s. FFRF has nearly 700 Pennsylvania members. Pittsburgh-based attorney Marcus Schneider represents the plaintiffs in both suits.

Some nonmembers of FFRF were up in arms with dire predictions. At a “Save Our Stone” rally at Valley High, New Kensington resident Mike Hresko spoke to the “crowd” of 50, according to the Valley News Dispatch. “We don’t want it removed. This is part of our community. . . . They’ll lock up the churches and we’ll be just like a communist country.”

At a similar event in Connellsville, a woman told WTAE-4 that the monuments contain “God’s principles” and should stay. “I believe that God should be in school with our children.”

The legal complaints state that the continued presence of the Ten Commandments on school property unconstitutionally advances and endorses religion. The complaints also note that [each] display “lacks any secular purpose,” citing Stone v. Graham, a 1980 Supreme Court decision which ruled the Commandments may not be posted in public school classrooms, because “The pre-eminent purpose” for doing so “is plainly religious in nature.”

Plaintiffs in the suit against the New Kensington-Arnold School District are FFRF member Marie Schaub, who has a child, Doe 1, in the school district who regularly encounters the bible edict, and Doe 2, a student at Valley High School, along with Doe 3, parent and guardian of Doe 2.

The Valley News Dispatch reported that Schaub came to a pro-Commandments rally. “I just wanted to hear what they are saying. I find it amazing that people gather in support of breaking the law.”

Doe 5 is an atheist member of FFRF who views the Connellsville monument as usurpation of parental rights and who does “not subscribe to the religious statements that are inscribed on the monument.” Her child, Doe 4, attends the junior high and comes in regular contact with the prominent monument, which is in view of students boarding or exiting school buses and participating in outdoor gym classes.

The complaint notes, “FFRF and Doe 5 contend that a public school district has no right to instruct its captive audience of impressionable students on which god to have, how many gods to have, or whether to have any gods at all.”

The tombstone-like New Kensington monument, about 6 feet tall, is directly in front of the main school entrance, near two footbridges that students, staff and visitors use to enter the building.

School Board President Robert Pallone wrote in March on a Facebook page called “KEEP THE TEN COMMANDMENTS AT VALLEY HIGH SCHOOL,” that the district would not “remove this monument without a fight !!!!!”

The Eagles’ Commandments campaign started when a devout judge and Eagles member, E.J. Ruegemer — who wanted to promote religion and Minnesota granite — teamed up with film director Cecil B. DeMille, who was advertising his 1956 epic “The Ten Commandments.”

In 2002, FFRF successfully removed one of the first such monuments placed on public property in the city of Milwaukee. Actor Yul Brenner, who played Rameses II in the movie, had attended the dedication.

FFRF seeks permanent injunctions directing the districts to remove the monuments from district property, reasonable costs and attorneys’ fees and nominal damages to plaintiffs. Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott helped draft both complaints.

Freedom From Religion Foundation