Judge Orders Removal of Plaque From Courthouse in Pennsylvania

A federal judge Wednesday ordered the removal of an 82-year-old Ten Commandments plaque from the Chester County Courthouse, calling it an unconstitutional display of the biblical text.

The plaque is inscribed with a version of the Ten Commandments from the King James version of the Bible, used by Protestants.

"The tablet's necessary effect on those who see it is to endorse or advance the unique importance of this predominantly religious text for mainline Protestantism," wrote U.S. District Judge Stewart Dalzell.

The judge ordered county officials to remove the plaque and "permanently enjoined" them from putting it back up.

The ruling was a victory for the Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia and one of its members, Sally Flynn, a longtime county resident who has served as a juror in the courthouse and objected to the 50-inch-by-39-inch bronze plaque.

"It is undisputed that (Flynn) is an atheist. She finds the tablet unwelcome every time she passes by it, and has often taken steps to avoid seeing it," Dalzell wrote.

Dalzell's ruling came after a two-day trial that included testimony from theological scholars and members of the Freethought Society, which describes itself as a group of atheists, agnostics, humanists and others.

"Obviously, we're enormously pleased that a gift that was given to us 200 years ago — that each person is free to find their own religious path, or to turn from religion — is being reaffirmed today," said Stefan Presser, legal director of the Pennsylvania chapter of the ACLU, which represented the plaintiffs.

Attorneys for the county had argued that the Ten Commandments have both a secular and religious place in history, and couldn't reasonably be considered offensive.

County officials said they will consider an appeal.

"Our display of the Ten Commandments plaque is entirely consistent with the original intent" of the First Amendment, said County Commissioner Colin A. Hanna.

The plaque was posted at the entrance to the courthouse in West Chester, about 25 miles west of Philadelphia, in 1920 by a private group, the Council of Religious Education of West Chester.

Since 1971, when the U.S. Supreme Court decided a case called Lemon v. Kurtzman, federal courts are required to use a three-part test in judging church-state cases.

The test says a law or a government practice is invalid if it does not have a secular purpose, if it primarily promotes religion or fosters "excessive entanglement" with religion.

Dalzell noted that five sitting Supreme Court justices have been harshly critical of the test, which was devised by a more liberal Supreme Court. But he said he was obliged to use its methodology until the Supreme Court instructs otherwise.

Federal courts across the nation have reached different conclusions in Ten Commandments cases, some allowing government displays, others forbidding it. Last week, the Supreme Court turned down an appeal from Indiana Gov. Frank O'Bannon, who wanted permission to place a 7-foot stone monument on the grounds of the state Capitol.

The Ten Commandments contain both religious and secular directives, including the familiar proscriptions against stealing, killing and adultery. The Bible says God gave the list to Moses.