Judge Says School’s Ten Commandments Monument is Illegal, but It Doesn’t Have to Come Down

This is Connellsville Junior High East in Pennsylvania. As you can see, it has a Ten Commandments monument right in front of it, and that’s been there since the Fraternal Order of Eagles donated it in 1957:

A couple of years ago, Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the Freedom From Religion Foundation wrote letters to the district to have it taken down, and it resulted in the monument being boarded up with plans for it to be donated to a local church.

But then, following a lot of local backlash, district officials un-boarded the monument and we were basically back to square one.

Last December, FFRF (and local plaintiffs) asked a federal court for summary judgment. In essence, they just want a judge to decide this thing once and for all.

The Connellsville Area School District filed its own request for summary judgment, but their argument was just ridiculous:

… the Eagles’ Monument is undeniably part of a secular display. The inscription of the Ten Commandments is simply one element in a display with an overall secular message

In essence, they were saying that, because there was a bald eagle included in the display, the Ten Commandments monument wasn’t religious.

Seriously. That’s what they said.

This is a religious monument. It always has been. There aren’t even other monuments around it to give off the sentiment that it’s part of a broader display. Anyone who claims it’s not religious is only trying to hide the fact that it’s totally religious.

Looks like U.S. District Judge Terrence F. McVerry was rolling his eyes, too.

Yesterday, he issued a 50-page ruling explaining how the monument was indeed unconstitutional:

“The monument still stands alone outside the school, declaring to all who pass it, ‘I AM the LORD thy God.’ There is no context plausibly suggesting that this plainly religious message has any broader, secular meaning,” wrote McVerry.

Citing Supreme Court precedent, McVerry added: “Whether the key word is ‘endorsement,’ ‘favoritism,’ or ‘promotion,’ the essential principle remains the same. The Establishment Clause, at the very least, prohibits government from appearing to take a position on questions of religious belief or from ‘making adherence to a religion relevant in any way to a person’s standing in the political community.’ ”

McVerry added that First Amendment law “no doubt, is not always clear. But in this case, it compels a finding that the Ten Commandments monument at the Connellsville Area School District Junior High School runs afoul of the Establishment Clause. This ruling is in no way meant to denigrate the sincerely held religious beliefs of the citizens and elected officials in the Connellsville community who rallied in support of keeping the monument… When, however, our government, at whatever level, departs from mere acknowledgement of our religious history to endorsement of a particular religious message, as set forth in the Ten Commandments, it has gone too far.”

Great! The monument is unconstitutional! It’s finally coming down, right?

Not so fast.

This controversy began in 2012, with those first letters to the District. The student whose family lodged that complaint has since graduated from the school and they have no connection to it anymore. Taking the monument down, in that case, won’t make any different since the student’s not even around to appreciate it.

So while McVerry says it’s illegal, there’s also no reason to take it down right now since, technically, it’s not bothering anybody involved in this lawsuit.

For that reason, the student will receive $1 in damages from the District (since this was never about money)… but the Ten Commandments monument can stay right where it is.

It’s a frustrating victory. The church/state separation groups were right all along, but they won’t get the satisfaction of seeing the monument come down. It’ll take another student — and a speedier legal process — to make it happen.

A better District would take the monument down, anyway, knowing it won’t stand up to legal scrutiny. But they dodged a bullet once. They probably figure they can do it again in the future.

(Large portions of this article were posted earlier)

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