When he turned 50 years old in 1991, Florida resident Joe H. Anderson Jr. went through a spiritual crisis and embraced fundamentalist Christianity.
Looking for ways to share his faith, Anderson came up with a new idea: “tent revival in box.” As a news report from the Florida Baptist Convention put it, Anderson formed a group called Crusades 4 Christ and started giving churches tents measuring 200-feet-by-100-feet, 2,500 chairs, lights, sound systems, portable pulpits and other supplies to sponsor their own old-fashioned tent revivals.
“This says a lot about Joe Anderson’s heart,” Joe Maddox, director of missions for the Nature Coast Baptist Association, said. “He is a man who wants to reach the lost.”
But Anderson didn’t stop there. He also hired a chaplain for his 2,000-employee highway construction firm – and then he turned his sights to local government. In 2005, an employee of Anderson’s called the Dixie County Board of County Commissioners and asked if they would accept a Ten Commandments monument for the courthouse. Members of the board agreed, and on Nov. 25, 2006, a 5-feet-tall, 6-ton black granite monument was installed in front of the courthouse.
In addition to a Protestant version of the Commandments, the monument features the words “LOVE GOD AND KEEP HIS COMMANDMENTS” at its base.
Three months after the monument was erected, the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, representing an anonymous plaintiff, sued. At that point, the board began arguing that the display was permissible because Anderson, not the county, owns the marker. They even added the words “PLACED, OWNED AND MAINTAINED BY JOE ANDERSON JR.” on the back of it.
But it was too late. In court, the ACLU was able to show an extensive record of cooperation between Anderson and county officials. The Gainesville Sun reported that the Dixie County Commission had “voted unanimously ‘to go ahead with having the Ten Commandments placed on the front of the courthouse steps,’ and the county attorney offered at the time to defend any lawsuits resulting from the monument. The court record also shows that the construction and progress of the monument was discussed with county commissioners on several occasions.”
Claims that the space in front of the courthouse is an open forum also failed, since the Commandments monument is the only thing displayed there and the Supreme Court has held that permanent monuments on public property generally represent government speech, even if a government body claims that an open forum exists.
In July, U.S. Senior District Judge Maurice Paul issued a ruling saying that the religious symbol must be removed.
“Despite the actual ownership of the monument, the location and permanent nature of the display make it clear to all reasonable observers that Dixie County chooses to be associated with the message being conveyed,” wrote Paul, a Ronald Reagan appointee. “As such, the Court finds that the monument displaying the Ten Commandments is government speech and must comport with the [First Amendment].”
County officials, backed by Liberty Counsel, a Religious Right legal group connected with Jerry Falwell Jr.’s Liberty University, refused to accept the verdict. The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida v. Dixie County case is now before the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The appeal led Americans United to weigh in on the matter. In a friend-of-the-court brief filed Nov. 9, Americans United argued that efforts to display the Commandments at the seat of government are spearheaded by Religious Right groups that want to send a message of exclusion to Americans who don’t share their fundamentalist theology.
“Dixie County officials have no business telling county residents to ‘Love God and Keep His Commandments,’ as this monument does,” said Barry W. Lynn, Americans United’s executive director. “County officials should display the Constitution, not a religious exhortation, in front of their courthouse.”
The AU legal brief traces the history of Religious Right promotion of Commandments displays and notes that Decalogue depictions have become a pet project of fundamentalist Christian activists.
These groups, the AU brief asserts, seek to use the Commandments to send a message of Christian supremacism and to let members of non-Christian faiths and non-religious people know that they are second-class citizens.
“As the religious diversity in the country has increased…the Religious Right has perceived a growing threat to – in fact, an attack on – Christianity,” asserts the brief. “In response to this perceived attack, the Religious Right has appropriated the Ten Commandments as a symbol of Christian dominance in an attempt to cast religious minorities and the non-religious as outsiders. Contemporary presentations of the Decalogue on government land thus communicate a message to non-Christians of outsider status in American political life – creating the very situation that the First Amendment was intended to avoid.”
Adds the brief, “[T]he Religious Right has waged a highly public, decade-long crusade to erect new Ten Commandments displays on public land and in public buildings across the country. As part of a carefully orchestrated movement, the Religious Right has launched several campaigns to encourage and facilitate displays of the Ten Commandments on public grounds.”
The brief notes that many state and federal politicians have taken up this crusade. Legislation urging Commandments displays in public schools and government buildings passed in Indiana, Kentucky, South Dakota and Oklahoma.
The U.S. Congress also got involved, with members of Congress introducing bills lauding the Commandments or attempting to strip the federal courts of their power to hear cases challenging government-sponsored displays of the Decalogue.
The Dixie County display, AU asserts, also creates problems because it requires the government to wade into a theological thicket.
Other communities that have attempted to display the Decalogue have faced this problem. At least three versions exist – Roman Catholic, Protestant and Jewish. The versions list the commandments in varying order and use different terminology.
In the Protestant version, for example, the Second Commandment warns against making a “graven image.” But Catholics, who use images of saints, the Virgin Mary and other figures in their churches, omit this commandment entirely. In the Catholic version, the Second Commandment warns against taking God’s name in vain. (This is the Third Commandments for Protestants.)
In the Jewish version, the First Commandment isn’t so much a commandment as a statement. It’s a reminder that God brought his people out of bondage in Egypt. The Second Commandment goes on to warn against worshipping “other gods.”
Protestants combine the statement about bondage in Egypt and the Jewish Second Commandment into one – the First Commandment. The wording is also a little different, warning against the worship of “strange gods.”
The monument in Dixie County, a rural enclave of about 15,000 people on the northwest coast of Florida, uses the Protestant language. The county, AU asserts, has no constitutional right to endorse a specific religious text. (Interestingly, the first monument erected contained a typo, which has since been fixed. The Seventh Commandment warned against committing “adultry.”)
“Displaying the Ten Commandments on government property not only requires choosing a religious text over a nonreligious one, it also necessitates a choice among religions,” the brief says. “It comes as no surprise that the Dixie County monument contains an explicitly Christian version of the Ten Commandments….” (The brief was drafted by attorneys Barbara E. Etkind and Carrie Collier-Brown of the international law firm Troutman Sanders LLP, with input from AU Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan, Associate Legal Director Alex J. Luchenitser and Steven Gey Fellow/law clerk Natalie Shapero. Three other organizations joined AU on it: Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America; the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund and United Sikhs.)
When the lawsuit was filed, local fundamentalists rallied to the defense of the monument. One resident wrote to the local newspaper advising people who were upset over the display, “If you don’t like it, don’t come here.” Another resident told a local TV station, “If you don’t like it, don’t look at it. Go in the back door.”
The animus to opponents of the government display of the Commandments was even shared by the Dixie County Advocate, a local newspaper. When Paul’s decision was handed down, the newspaper wrote on its Facebook page, “ALERT!! STUPID federal judge says Dixie has 30 days to remove the Ten Commandments from the Courthouse…. Post your reactions here for the paper.”
When Americans United emailed a copy of a press release about its brief to the Advocate, editor Kathy McKinney replied, “Honestly, speaking for the people of Dixie County, we don’t give a damn what you think.”
On Nov. 27, about 1,500 local residents turned out for a pro-Commandments rally. The event was led by Anderson, who told the crowd that the United States was founded on Christian principles. The Gainesville Sun reported that Anderson said he is offended by signs promoting gay rights in the nearby university town of Gainesville but he hasn’t sued over them.
“Those nice banners strung across University Avenue, it makes me sick, but I ain’t sued anybody,” Anderson said.
The newspaper noted that one woman was waving a sign that read, “If you don’t like what our USA was built on GET OUT.”
A local politician also attended. State Rep. Leonard Bembry (D- Greenville) told the newspaper after the event, “This country was built based on what the Ten Commandments represent. It’s so important that we as Americans preserve this way of life that we have.”
Americans United’s intervention in the Dixie County case is part of an ongoing concern about the display of sectarian symbols and scriptures on public property. AU has long maintained that the Ten Commandments and other religious codes belong in houses of worship, not at the seat of government.
In a famous case from 2001, Americans United joined with the ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center to sue Roy Moore, then chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, who had displayed a 2.5-ton Commandments monument in the lobby of the Judicial Building in Montgomery.
A federal appeals court ruled against Moore, but he defied the court and refused to remove the monument. Moore was subsequently expelled from the state’s high court by its other justices, and the monument was taken away.
AU’s Lynn said government display of the Commandments not only violates the separation of church and state, it also promotes false ideas about the evolution of American law. Many of the Commandments, he said, deal exclusively with theological matters and are not addressed in U.S. law.
“The Ten Commandments are an important legal code for many believers, but they are not the basis of U.S. law,” Lynn said. “For government to point to a religious code as the source of all law by displaying the Ten Commandments is simplistic as well as unconstitutional.”