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10 Commandments display proposal for Tennessee courthouse inappropriate and unconstitutional

The Foundation sent a recent letter objecting to a proposed Ten Commandments display for the front entrance of the newly constructed Hawkins County Justice Center (Rogersville, Tenn). This letter has since stirred strong debate within the media, county government and public. 

The Hawkins County Commission's Building Committee, at the request of Juvenile Court Judge James Taylor, recently voted to approve a "Foundations of American Law and Government" exhibit, which would include the Ten Commandments along with a series of other religious items, including, but not limited to, the Pledge of Allegiance (with the words "UNDER GOD" enlarged and emphasized), George Washington's prayer at Valley Forge (which never happened), and the Magna Carta (but not the U.S. Constitution!). Judge Taylor unabashedly promotes the proposed display items on his official Web site, embracing its religious theme.

The County Commission will likely vote on the proposal during its late August meeting, so commissioners need public feedback now!

FFRF attorney Patrick Elliott noted in his letter the serious state/church concerns with the proposal. "In Hawkins County, Judge Taylor has been greatly involved in sponsoring and creating a religious-themed display for the Justice Center. . . . The unique pieces of the Hawkins County display and the proposed prominent location would amount to unconstitutional governmental endorsement of religion."

Judge Taylor's version of the Ten Commandments oddly differed from the versions used by Catholics, Jews and Lutherans, and actually did not conform to any denomination's version. The most startling inaccuracy was that there were a total of nine Commandments proposed for the display! The proposed display omitted the commandment prohibiting adultery (typically the seventh or sixth Commandment)! The proposed plaque also stated that bearing false witness is the eleventh Commandment! (The Judge corrected these errors on his Web site after FFRF pointed them out.)

As Elliott warned: "The Ten Commandments have significant religious meaning to many Christian and Jewish citizens in your community. For some, the edits and deletions . . . in the display would contradict their beliefs and cause offense. . . . Jewish, Catholic and Lutheran, and various Protestant denominations do not agree on the wording and order of the Ten Commandments." Elliott said: "It is also interesting to exclusively refer to Exodus 20:1-17 as the 'Ten Commandments.' The Ten Commandments referred to in Exodus 34 (which Moses chiseled on tablets) differ from Exodus 20:1-17."

The proposal includes Benjamin Franklin's Epitaph, which was actually only a mock epitaph written by Franklin over 60 years prior to his death. Franklin's real gravestone reads: "Benjamin and Deborah Franklin 1790." As Elliott pointed out, the fake epitaph "has absolutely no relation to the foundation of the United States or 'civic heritage.' "

The display would also include a painting of George Washington's prayer at Valley Forge, based on a myth thoroughly debunked by historians. The myth was perpetuated by Parson Weems, who also invented the cherry tree story. "Any historical displays by Hawkins County should at least be based on history," FFRF's letter stated. "Just as it would be inappropriate to display the cherry tree myth, the display of Washington in prayer at Valley Forge furthers a historic falsehood." Further troubling, "the selection of a painting of Washington in prayer demonstrates the religious purpose for the display. Hawkins County could display any number of depictions of General or President Washington. Yet, the County selected one that fits with the religious theme of the overall display."

(Scroll to end to see video of the judge's own admission of the display's religious purpose, and other coverage.)

Help FFRF object to this unconstitutional display!


Please send messages to the county commissioners and county mayor objecting to the display. Several lines would be sufficient. (Feel free to copy and paste the following paragraph, or see more talking points below).

I object to the proposal to display religious items including the Ten Commandments in the Hawkins County Justice Center. Such a display is divisive, unconstitutional and turns citizens who are nonreligious or who hold minority religious views into political outsiders in their own community.


-The "Foundations of American Law and Government" display proposal contains primarily religious items, gross factual errors, and ignores the secular heritage of our country (such as the U.S. Constitution). The Ten Commandments and a fictitious depiction of Washington praying at Valley Forge were selected for their promotion of religion and have no relevance to the foundation of the United States. The Founders were careful to establish our nation on fundamental principles of secular democracy, not on religious dogma. The Constitution is entirely secular and contains only exclusionary references to religion, such as, "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust" (Art. VI). Why would Judge Taylor omit this most cherished American document?

-The version of the Ten Commandments selected is not the same version used by the county's Jews, Lutherans or Catholics. Given that there are so many versions, how can the county possibly decide which denomination's version they will "bless"? (Remind them that Judge Taylor's original version, which he has since corrected on his Web site after FFRF complained, contained only nine commandments, a mysterious eleventh commandment and the startling omission of the adultery commandment!)


Please write as an individual and not as someone responding to an Action Alert. We are pleased to receive "blind" copies of your messages/correspondence by e-mail at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

The Honorable Crockett Lee
Hawkins County Mayor's Office
150 East Washington Street Suite 2
Rogersville TN 37857
Fax: (423) 272-1867
County Clerk E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
NOTE: Unfortunately, the county mayor and county commission do not have individual e-mail addresses, so please send e-mail to the county clerk (above), with attention to the County Mayor and County Commission.

For more information, see local news coverage:

(TV Coverage) Proposed Hawkins County courthouse display called 'unconstitutional'

(TV Coverage) Freedom From Religion Foundation is questioning proposed Ten Commandment display in the Hawkins County Justice Center

Group warns Hawkins County against including Ten Commandments in courthouse display

Editorial: Hawkins should pull plug on 'Foundations' display

Action Alert by Bonnie Gutsch

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