Stewart v. Johnson County

AU's Role: 
AU's Involvement Began: 
January 2011
Status: 

After the Johnson County Commission removed a government-sponsored Ten Commandments display from the County Courthouse, the Commission created a public forum in the Courthouse lobby for displays relating to the development of American law. The Commission then accepted a display featuring the Ten Commandments, quotations from historical legal sources, and Biblical verses—bearing the message that the United States was founded on Christian principles. 

Ralph Stewart, a Johnson County resident, requested permission to display posters documenting the historical roots of church/state separation. The Commission solicited advice from the Alliance Defense Fund, and then rejected Mr. Stewart’s proposed display—even though it features quotations from many of the same historical legal sources as does the Ten Commandments display.

We filed suit in January 2011. Mr. Stewart’s complaint alleged that the County Commission is discriminating on the basis of content and viewpoint, in violation of the First Amendment’s Free Speech Clause, and is using its public-forum policy to promote religion, in violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. Mr. Stewart sought an injunction requiring the County either to permit the display of Mr. Stewart’s posters or, in the alternative, to close the public-forum and remove the Ten Commandments display.

In November 2011, we reached a favorable settlement agreement with the County. That agreement requires the County to display Stewart’s church-state separation posters. The agreement also requires the Commission to accept future displays relating to law or history, narrows the County's control over aesthetic standards, and ensures that the County will post a disclaimer in the courthouse explaining that the displays are sponsored by private citizens. Finally, the agreement prevents the County from rejecting a display simply because the Commission dislikes its content or viewpoint and requires the County to explain in writing and propose an alternative design if it rejects a display for aesthetic reasons.