Nov 09, 2011

Officials in Dixie County, Fla., have no right to erect a Ten Commandments display in front of their courthouse, Americans United for Separation of Church and State has told a federal appeals court.

In a friend-of-the-court brief filed today, Americans United argues that efforts to display the six-ton granite Commandments monument 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 the Rev. 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 involvement by Religious Right groups (and their political allies) that have promoted Ten Commandments displays.

As the religious diversity in the country has increasedthe 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.

The brief also asserts that the display has allowed Dixie County officials to wade into theological controversies.

“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, noting that the Commandments version displayed is explicitly Christian.

The case, American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, Inc. v. Dixie County, Florida, is pending before the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. A lower court struck down the display. Americans United is asking the appeals court to affirm that decision.

The brief was drafted by attorneys Barbara E. Etkind and Carrie Collier-Brown of the international law firm Troutman Sanders LLP, with input from Americans United’s Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan, Senior Litigation Counsel Alex J. Luchenitser, and Steven Gey Fellow / law clerk Natalie Shapero.

Several civil liberties organizations joined the brief: Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America; the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund; and United Sikhs.