FFRF challenges religious Tennessee courthouse display

A juvenile court judge unwilling to separate his Christianity from the Hawkins County Courthouse in Rogersville, Tenn., has drawn fire from the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

FFRF formally complained July 23 to the county about Judge James "Jay" Taylor's efforts to mount a display called "Foundations of American Law and Government" in the Justice Center, which houses the jail, three courtrooms and offices. The County Commission's Building Committee has approved the display, which is heavily weighted with religious elements, including the Ten Commandments. It also includes a religious metaphor from a mock epitaph of Benjamin Franklin, a historically inaccurate painting of George Washington in prayer at Valley Forge, an excerpt of religious content from George Washington’s inaugural address, a plaque with large “Under God” lettering, a plaque with large “In God We Trust” lettering and two Tennessee resolutions acknowledging God.

"Almost everything" is wrong about the display, said FFRF Attorney Patrick Elliott. “For instance, the plaque omits the commandment prohibiting adultery, typically noted as the seventh or sixth commandment. The plaque also states that bearing false witness is the 11th commandment.

"The Ten Commandments have no relation to the 'civic heritage' of the United States," Elliott said. "Our entirely secular Constitution makes no reference to them. Our leaders wisely shaped U.S. laws on fundamental principles of democracy and not on religious dogma."

The Foundations of American Law displays were challenged in McCreary County v. ACLU. After two Kentucky counties were challenged on stand-alone displays of the Ten Commandments, they added "historic documents" to display with the Ten Commandments. The U.S. Supreme Court saw through this attempt to minimize the religious significance of the Ten Commandments. In June 2010, the Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals upheld a permanent injunction against two counties from displaying the Foundations.

It's readily apparent that Taylor and the Buildings Committee selected the items for their references to God, Elliott said. "The display has a predominantly religious theme and uses items that are historically inaccurate and items with little historical significance to the foundation of American law or heritage."

Another example of religious bias: None of the items mention the original secular U.S. motto, which was selected by Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin: E pluribus unum (“out of many, one”). And the display's omissions are many. There's no mention of the U.S. Constitution. The 14th Amendment and civil rights legislation? Apparently not so important.

While Taylor has corrected three mistakes in the original Commandments plaque, (but only after FFRF sent its letter), the corrected version fails in that it conforms to a version used by many Protestant denominations. Jews, Catholics and Lutherans use very different wording and numbering. How can Hawkins County display a version that conflicts with the views of nonbelievers and several other religions? Will all hell break loose if the commission has to vote on whose version of the Commandments to use?

“The proposed Ten Commandments plaque is likely to cause divisiveness in that the order selected does not appear to be in conformance with any denomination’s version of the Decalogue,” Elliott said

The purpose of the display is not to promote religion, but to explain the role religion played in the founding of America, Taylor told WATE News Knoxville.

Taylor's Web site notes that he belongs to Spires Chapel Baptist Church, "where he is the Youth Leader and a Sunday School teacher. Having come from a family of pastors, and having his father-in-law serve as pastor of his church, Taylor’s life and interests revolve around his church and family. His grandparents had a powerful and spiritual influence on his life, and Taylor’s life has been largely guided by Papa Best’s advice: God has given each of us a special talent and gift; prayerfully find yours, and then serve God with it."

Hawkins County says the display is constitutional based on ACLU of Kentucky v. Grayson County, in which a Foundations display was ruled legal. But, noted Elliott, there are differences:

"A significant difference between the Grayson case and Hawkins County is the role of government officials in creating the display. In Grayson, the court did not find relevant the motivations of a private individual that sponsored the Foundations Display. The court said, '[T]here was little official involvement in the display. It was proposed, funded, and hung by a private individual.' In Hawkins County, Judge Taylor has been greatly involved in sponsoring and creating a religious-themed display for the Justice Center. This confers inappropriate governmental endorsement."

Help! See FFRF's Action Alert here.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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