Triumph In Tennessee

How Ralph Stewart Became Johnson County’s Poster Boy For Church-State Separation

After finishing lunch on Nov. 1, Ralph Stewart drove to the Johnson County Courthouse in Mountain City, Tenn., and affixed two posters to the wall explaining the history of church-state separation in America.

That simple act was the culmination of several years of work. Stewart achieved the right to display his pos ers only after Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed a lawsuit on his behalf – litigation that was just recently settled.

The Johnson County saga got started in 1999, when county officials erected a Ten Commandments plaque outside the office of the county court clerk. The plaque referred to the Commandments as “The Historical Foundation of American Law, Moral Values and Code of Conduct” and noted that it was “Presented by Citizens of Johnson County.”

Some years later, in 2008, local residents asked Americans United to investigate the legality of the display. AU attorneys did so and concluded that it was unconstitutional. They wrote to County Mayor Dick Grayson and asked that the Decalogue be removed from the courthouse and transferred to private property.

But Johnson County officials decided to put up a fight. In October of 2008, they approved a new policy stating that “citizens and citizen groups” would be permitted to erect displays “relating to history and heritage of American law and government on the walls in the lobby of the Johnson County Courthouse.”

To no one’s surprise, the county soon received a request from a local group called the “Ten Commandment Warriors,” which sought to display the same Ten Commandments plaque. The group also offered another plaque featuring quotes from Benjamin Franklin and Samuel Adams plus excerpts from the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. It also included a quote from a 1984 Supreme Court ruling stating that the Constitution does not mandate a “complete separation of church and state.”

Both plaques were duly installed. In fact, the county made a big deal of it. In August of 2009, a dedication ceremony was held that kicked off with a “Patriotic Prayer Walk.” Prayers were delivered at city hall and the Johnson County School Central Office. Many local businesses took part.

The display’s sponsor, a local funeral director and activist with the Gideons named Scott Teague, was allowed to augment the plaque with a 26-page pamphlet written by local clergy contending that U.S. law is anchored in the Bible and that the United States was founded as a Christian nation.

From his spread of land atop a nearby mountain, Stewart followed developments closely. But he did more than just watch. He set to work. Within a few days, Stewart had his own display ready. It consisted of two laminated posters.

The first, titled “On the Legal Heritage of the Separation of Church and State,” included language stating, “The Constitution of the United States prohibits government from favoring one religion or disparaging any other.” It featured three excerpts: the First Amendment’s religious liberty provisions, a quote from a 1989 Supreme Court decision and a passage from the Treaty with Tripoli, a 1797 document that declares the United States is not a Christian nation.

Stewart’s second document, titled “The Ten Commandments are not the Foundation of American Law,” argued that American law is based on English common and statutory law, not the Bible. It included quotations from the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

Stewart’s posters received a less than enthusiastic welcome from county officials. They denied his request and refused to erect the display.

Johnson County Planning Commissioner Mike Tavalario put it this way after the vote to deny Stewart’s request: “This is a good Christian community that welcomes people who move here, but if you want to attack God, you should leave.” (See “First Amendment Feud,” March 2011 Church & State.)

In January, Americans United filed suit on Stewart’s behalf. The case, Stewart v. Johnson County, charged that the county engaged in impermissible content-¬based and viewpoint-based discrimination in violation of Stewart’s First Amendment right to free speech. The legal complaint also asserted that the commission’s actions violated the separation of church and state because they had a religious purpose, had a predominantly religious effect and endorsed religion over non-¬religion.

Although the county enlisted the aid of the Alliance Defense Fund, a major Religious Right legal group, officials apparently soon realized that the case was unlikely to go well for them. Settlement talks were proposed, and AU attorneys spent several months working out the details. The settlement was finalized in early November.

The agreement has two main parts. One involves Stewart’s posters, which are now being displayed in the courthouse.

“They are right underneath the Ten Commandments plaque,” Stewart told Church & State. “They are on the same wall.”

The second portion of the settlement requires the county to make a number of revisions to its display policy. Displays will be limited to the lobby and hallways in the lower level of the courthouse. Displays must relate to American or Tennessee law or Johnson County history and must meet certain aesthetic requirements.

In addition, the county is forbidden to reject a display simply because commissioners don’t like the content. If the county purports to reject a display for “aesthetic” reasons, officials must provide a detailed, written explanation and propose an alternative design that would be acceptable.

The county has also agreed to put a disclaimer in the courthouse that reads, “The displays in the lobby and first-floor hallways were prepared and submitted by private citizens or private entities for display in this limited public forum. The displays were not designed by and do not necessarily reflect the views of Johnson County or the Johnson County Commission.”

Finally, the county agreed to reimburse some of the legal costs Americans United incurred in bringing the case.

Stewart, a retired airline pilot who moved to the area in 1998 because he fell in love with the mountain scenery and enjoyed the moderate climate, told Church & State that he would have preferred to see the Ten Commandments removed from the courthouse. But he considers the new arrangement a good compromise.

Stewart noted that not far from the courthouse stands a church that has a Commandments monument on its lawn. That’s the proper place for a religious code, he said.

“I’m for merely keeping the government separate from it,” Stewart said. “That’s the issue. I think we’re making the best of the situation by putting my display up.”

Johnson County, nestled deep in the heart of Appalachia, is Tennessee’s easternmost county and home to about 18,000 residents. It’s a place where conservative forms of religion are common, as well as political conservatism. (In 2008, GOP presidential candidate John McCain received 70 percent of the Johnson County vote.)

Stewart knew that he wouldn’t become the most popular guy in the county by pursuing the litigation, but he told Church & State that it wasn’t his aim to win popularity contests. Stewart also felt that he had a degree of protection since he doesn’t have a direct economic stake in the area. Stewart moved there from Illinois and, as a retiree, his income doesn’t rely on a small business or an employer in the county.

As the case progressed, Stewart said, he occasionally heard from people in the area who supported his effort. But he said they were afraid to speak out publicly, worried that they might lose their jobs or face other forms of retaliation.

Stewart lives on 150 acres where he cares for abused and neglected animals. He tends to keep to himself, but on the occasions when someone did challenge him on the case, Stewart said he was happy to expound on the legal and constitutional issues behind it. However, he said he quickly learned not to get into discussions about religion. Some people, he said, simply weren’t open to hearing his point of view.

Stewart, who served five years as a commissioned reserve officer in the Marines, said he doesn’t mind being an iconoclast in Johnson County.

“I moved to this area because of its natural beauty,” he said. “It’s a lovely area. I did not come here because of the population. I came for the land. I’m comfortable. I’m not the most sociable person in the world, and I don’t seek to join a lot of groups. I walk alone on the road of life. My road of life doesn’t have a lot of traffic on it.”

AU Litigation Counsel Gregory M. Lipper, who handled the case, saluted Stewart’s commitment and said he was pleased with the outcome.

“Johnson County’s Ten Commandments display filled the local courthouse with religion and bad history,” said Lipper. “Ralph Stewart wanted to present the real story of American religious liberty to county residents. I’m glad AU could help him do that.”