Nov 10, 2011

A Tennessee county has agreed to erect a local man’s display promoting church-state separation as part of a legal settlement, Americans United for Separation of Church and State announced today.

Ralph Stewart and his Church-State separation postersEarlier this year, Americans United challenged the Johnson County Commission’s decision to display the Ten Commandments and Christian literature in the county courthouse lobby while refusing to display Ralph Stewart’s posters about the historic role of church-state separation in American law.

As part of a legal settlement to end the case, the Johnson County Commission has agreed to hang Stewart’s posters in a prominent place and make changes to its policy concerning other displays.

“I’d prefer for government to stay out of the business of promoting religious documents altogether,” said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “But if government officials choose to go down this path, they must at least play fair and treat all citizens equally.”

The dispute began in 2008 after the Johnson County Commission adopted a policy that purported to create a public forum for displays on the walls of the county courthouse lobby. Displays were to relate to development of the history or heritage of the law. After adopting the policy, the Commission unanimously approved a display sponsored by the Rotary Club of Mountain City and the Ten Commandments Warriors that features the Ten Commandments alongside excerpts from the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, U.S. Supreme Court decisions and the nation’s founders.

But the Commission rejected Stewart’s display, saying it did not fall within the subject matter of the public forum their policy creates – even though Stewart’s material draws on many of the same historical sources as the Ten Commandments displays.

AU’s lawsuit asserted that the Commission engaged in impermissible content‑based and viewpoint‑based discrimination in violation of the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech. The complaint also charged that the Commission’s actions were undertaken with a religious purpose, had a predominantly religious effect, endorsed religion and preferred religion over non‑religion.

Under the terms of the settlement, 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.

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, the county must provided a detailed, written explanation and propose an alternative design that would be acceptable.

In addition, officials also agreed to put a disclaimer in the courthouse that makes it clear that the displays are sponsored by private citizens, not the county.