Photos Courtesy of Nelson Commonwealth Attorney Daniel Rutherford
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is objecting to a proposal by county supervisors to display a recently unveiled overtly religious edict in a Virginia courthouse.
"Virtus — Keep God's Commandments — Veritas" was not long ago revealed on the wood structure below the balcony in the Nelson County Circuit courtroom after being covered for more than 50 years. If the wording remains visible, the statement will reportedly face the judge and jury in the courtroom.
It is inappropriate and unconstitutional for the county government to display a message to "Keep God's Commandments," FFRF asserts.
"The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment prohibits government advancement and endorsement of religious messages," FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott writes to Nelson County Circuit Court Judge Michael Garrett and Nelson County Board of Supervisors. "Given the size of the 'Keep God's Commandments' lettering and its prominent placement, a reasonable observer would view it as an endorsement of religion by the county. If the county does not remove or cover this wording, it is unmistakably placing its stamp of approval on the religious message."
Nelson County lacks a secular purpose in displaying a message to "Keep God's Commandments," FFRF adds. The Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that Ten Commandments displays in two Kentucky courthouses violated the Constitution. While the original "Keep God's Commandments" lettering may date to the 19th century, that does not absolve the county from taking actions today that mitigate this violation of the Establishment Clause. Notably, it was reported that restoration work on the courthouse involved "carefully and painstakingly" removing old paint in order to uncover the lettering and that some county supervisors have expressed an interest in keeping the religious message.
Citizens are frequently compelled to come to the Nelson County Courthouse on important matters affecting their property, their freedom and their quality of life. These citizens should not be made to feel offended, excluded and like "outsiders, not full members of the political community," to quote the U.S. Supreme Court, because the local government they support with their taxes oversteps its power by prominently displaying religious statements at the seat of government. Almost one-fourth of American adults are nonreligious, including about 35 percent of Millennials.
Finally, the religious wording implicates not just the First Amendment, but also the ability of litigants to receive justice from an impartial jury and judiciary. Any court decision will have the stain of religious influence, which deprives citizens of their right to a fair trial. Any judge conducting proceedings in such an environment subjects himself or herself to violating the Canons of Judicial Conduct for the Commonwealth of Virginia.
"Nelson County officials need to move into the 21st century," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "What was tolerated as a religious imposition 200 years ago is unacceptable now."
FFRF is asking Nelson County to cover or remove the religious statement from the courthouse.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 28,000 members across the country, including 600-plus in Virginia. Its purpose is to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church.