Senior U.S. District Judge Terrence F. McVerry of the Western District of Pennsylvania issued a 50-page decision today in FFRF v. Connellsville Area School District, ruling that "the Ten Commandments monument at the Connellsville Area School District Junior High School runs afoul of the Establishment Clause." Connellsville is in Fayette Co., Pa., about 50 miles from Pittsburgh.
FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor hailed the ruling, noting "The First Commandment ('Thou shalt have no other gods before me') alone shows why the bible edicts don't belong at a public school or on government grounds. The government has no business telling citizens or public school students how many gods to have, which god to have or whether to have any god at all."
FFRF, a national state/church watchdog with more than 22,700 members across the nation, filed suit in September 2014 with a student, Doe 4, then a 7th grader, and the student's parent, Doe 5, an atheist and FFRF member. The large, tombstone-like granite monument was donated to the school system in 1956 by a local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Eagles, where it sits alone in a prominent area near the entrance to the auditorium of Connellsville Area Junior High. The area is adjacent to the parking lot where buses line up to drop off and pick up students.
McVerry's decision recites the chronology of the placement, which involved the mayor rhapsodizing that "there can be no better guidance for youth than God's laws," and notes it was one of the Ten Commandments markers donated as a campaign by the Eagles with filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille, director of "The Ten Commandments."
The decision recites the community uproar over the request to remove the biblical edicts from public school grounds, including a prayer rally and public gathering at the monument, with sprinkles of "amen" from the crowd. At a public meeting the complainants were referred to as "yellow-belly bums" for being pseudonymous, and speakers cited the need to "stand up for the Bible" and Christianity.
"The monument still stands alone outside the school, declaring to all who pass it, 'I AM the LORD thy God.' There is no context plausibly suggesting that this plainly religious message has any broader, secular meaning," wrote McVerry.
Citing Supreme Court precedent, McVerry added: "Whether the key word is 'endorsement,' 'favoritism,' or 'promotion,' the essential principle remains the same. The Establishment Clause, at the very least, prohibits government from appearing to take a position on questions of religious belief or from 'making adherence to a religion relevant in any way to a person's standing in the political community.' "
McVerry added that First Amendment law "no doubt, is not always clear. But in this case, it compels a finding that the Ten Commandments monument at the Connellsville Area School District Junior High School runs afoul of the Establishment Clause. 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. . . . When, however, our government, at whatever level, departs from mere acknowledgement of our religious history to endorsement of a particular religious message, as set forth in the Ten Commandments, it has gone too far."
Although the student plaintiff is no longer at the junior high, because the student has graduated to high school, a claim for nominal damages was made, which avoided mooting the case. McVerry awarded the requested nominal damages in the amount of $1.00 to plaintiffs.
"We're very grateful to the plaintiffs who made possible this challenge, in the face of community rancor. Religion is divisive and builds walls between people, which is why it doesn't belong in our public schools." Gaylor added.
FFRF was represented by Attorney Marcus B. Scheider. FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott assisted in the case.