PHILADELPHIA – Actor Yul Brynner was the guest of honor when Milwaukee officials dedicated an inscription of the Ten Commandments outside the entrance to the city's municipal building in 1956.
The monument was one of hundreds the Fraternal Order of Eagles donated to courthouses and schools nationwide in the 1950s as part of an evangelical campaign timed to coincide with the release of his movie The Ten Commandments.
But this year the plaque is slated to come down as a result of a legal challenge, and another 4,000 other Ten Commandment plaques in government buildings nationwide are in danger of a similar fate.
The latest inscription to face the chisel is an 82-year-old Ten Commandments plaque hung outside the Chester County courthouse in suburban Philadelphia.
A U.S. District judge ruled last week that, despite their historical value as an antecedent of secular law, the Ten Commandments are primarily a religious document and their display in a government building amounts to a government endorsement of one religion.
Chester County commissioners said Tuesday that they will appeal the order.
"We are the custodians of a public building that has historical significance. The plaque has been part of that building for more than 80 years," Commission chairwoman Karen Martynick said. "We have gotten more feedback from the community on this issue than on any other issue that we have ever dealt with — all in favor of keeping the commandments."
Attorney General Mike Fisher on Tuesday volunteered to assist the Chester County appeal. Fisher spokesman Sean Connolly said the office would consider filing a brief with the U.S. Supreme Court.
Nevertheless, officials around the state and elsewhere are wondering whether other religious writings will have to come down.
Northampton County President Judge Robert A. Freedberg said he is considering whether to remove a bronze placard of the Ten Commandments from above the witness stand in his courtroom.
Milwaukee officials reached an out-of-court agreement to remove their plaque, in part because of a ruling in the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals that a similar display was unconstitutional.
This month, federal judges in Plattsmouth, Neb., and Elkhart, Ind., upheld rulings ordering the removal of Ten Commandments plaques from a park and a city hall.
"We are starting to see some really good movement," said Annie Laurie Gaylor, editor of the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation's newspaper, Freethought Today. "I think that with cases like this, you are starting to see a critical mass. When the courts begin to get clogged with challenges, judges see that they have to start to deal with it."
The U.S. Supreme Court in February gave a boost to Commandment opponents when it refused to hear an appeal from Indiana Gov. Frank O'Bannon, who wanted to place a 7-foot stone monument of the Ten Commandments on the grounds of the state Capitol.
Yet to be heard is the case of Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, who placed a 5,280-pound Ten Commandments monument in the rotunda of the state judicial building in October, saying it properly acknowledged God "as the source of law and liberty."
The success of the movement to remove the Commandments from government buildings has sparked protests.
In Chester County, more than a half-dozen businesses taped copies of the Ten Commandments to their windows to support the county's appeal. In Northampton County, public sentiments have been similar, according to court administrator James Onembo.
"Since this started there have been people calling court administration saying it shouldn't be removed," he said. "No one has called asking for it to be removed.