Charleston County Council Display Of Ten Commandments Would Violate Church-state Separation

The Charleston (S.C.) County Council's plan to post the Ten Commandments in council chambers would violate church-state separation, say two civil liberties groups.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina filed suit today in the South Carolina Court of Common Pleas seeking a preliminary injunction to stop the government-sponsored religious display.

Council members voted May 20 to endorse the posting, and said they would use a Ten Commandments plaque donated by a private group.

The Young v. County of Charleston lawsuit charges that "the use of religious symbols to adorn Council chambers has as its primary purpose and effect the advancing of religion, and symbolically links the County, the laws of the United States and of the State of South Carolina with religion."

Americans United and the ACLU noted that the proposed display will inevitably involve the council in religious questions because there are many versions of the Ten Commandments. In addition, several of the commandments fall "outside the scope of secular law such as those compelling worship of and respect for a single deity, respect for the Sabbath and proscribing taking the name of the Lord in vain."

Said Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn, "The Charleston County Council has apparently forgotten that the Constitution, not the Ten Commandments, forms the basis of U.S. law. The council chamber is a house of government, not a house of worship. It should be a place of welcome for all Americans, not just those with the 'right' religion."

Lynn, an attorney and United Church of Christ minister, said the Ten Commandments are important to many people of faith and should not be used for political purposes. He pointed out that the South Carolina action was apparently spurred by a controversy in Alabama, where Gov. Fob James has vowed to use the National Guard to keep in place a courtroom display of the Ten Commandments. The issue has become a cause celebre for Religious Right groups.

Plaintiffs in the Charleston case include the Rev. James L. Young, a retired Baptist minister; Sharon T. Robles, president of Americans United's South Carolina Chapter; and Armand Derfner, a local attorney.

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.