Published January 13, 2015
Financial concerns prompted the Harlan County Board of Education to take displays of the Ten Commandments out of its schools and administrative buildings, an official said Thursday.
School board member Brenda Henson said the possibility of having to pay the legal fees of the American Civil Liberties Union has also led to informal discussions about dropping an appeal seeking to keep the commandments on the walls.
The school board voted to remove the displays on Wednesday, less than a week after U.S. District Judge Jennifer Coffman agreed with the ACLU that they appear to violate the divide between church and state.
Coffman, in a ruling last Friday, ordered the commandments immediately removed from schools in Harlan County and courthouses in McCreary and Pulaski counties, all of which are defendants in a lawsuit filed by the ACLU.
The displays now remain only in the Pulaski County Courthouse. In McCreary County, they were taken down about two months ago so they wouldn't be damaged in a major renovation of the courthouse.
Johnnie Turner, attorney for the Harlan County schools, said the decision to take the commandments down should not be interpreted as school board members giving up on the case.
"If they did not comply with the court's order, what kind of an example would they be setting for society? The board did what was appropriate," Turner said.
Henson said last week's legal setback is worrisome because the district's insurance provider may not cover legal fees if the ACLU wins the lawsuit. That could leave the district responsible for paying at least a third of the ACLU's legal costs.
"I think that's what got the superintendent and some of the board members concerned," Henson said.
Jeff Vessels, director of the ACLU's Louisville office, said Thursday he doesn't know the amount of legal fees that have accumulated over the 17-month history of the case. Earlier this year, however, the group asked a federal judge to award more than $400,000 in legal fees tallied during a two-year fight over 1998 Kentucky legislation that focused on late-term abortions.
Henson said some board members have considered dropping out of the appeal to avoid the possibility of running up additional costs in the case.
The Liberty Counsel, a conservative legal organization in Orlando, Fla., is appealing Coffman's ruling on behalf of the three counties. Erik Stanley, an attorney for Liberty Counsel, said the organization's legal services are being provided at no charge.
"I think it would be unfortunate if the school board dropped out now," Stanley said. "This was not a permanent set back, but a temporary one."