Push for Ten Commandment displays gains momentum in South

Posted: Friday, May 10, 2002

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Charles Wysong believes God has stirred a fight in Tennessee.

As president of Ten Command-ments-Tennessee, Wysong wants to see the biblical laws posted in public places throughout the state. He vows his organization will pay all the legal expenses for defending three displays in Hamilton County.

June Griffin, meanwhile, has traveled the state for five years in her 1993 Pontiac, trying to persuade commissioners in all of Tennessee's 95 counties to display the Ten Commandments in public buildings. More than half of the state's counties do so.

Wysong and Griffin each represent a growing movement, inspired in part by the Columbine school shootings and bolstered by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, that aims to have the Ten Commandments posted on government property.

''I think what is happening in this country is we're finding out we cannot run this country without a moral code from God,'' Wysong said.

Supporters see their efforts as a way of encouraging morality and showing that U.S. law is grounded in biblical law, but civil liberties groups view Ten Commandments campaigns as an affront to the nation's fundamental principles.

The debate is muddied by conflicting opinions among justices as to whether the displays violate the Constitution's ban of government promotion of religion.

As the justices argue, lawmakers -- primarily in the South -- continue to vote in favor of displaying the Ten Commandments.

The Alabama Legislature is considering a constitutional amendment to allow public schools to display them. The North Carolina Legislature approved a law last year allowing school districts to show historical documents, including the Ten Commandments.

In Tennessee, more than a dozen counties have approved Ten Commandments displays in the last year, but others have had them up for years. Washington County in northeast Tennessee, for example, has had them on display for more than 80 years.

One of the latest to follow the trend was Sumner County, near Nashville, which voted in March to post the Ten Commandments in the county administration building, along with the Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence.

''Those Ten Commandments provide the foundational basis for law in the United States, and I don't think anyone would deny that the framers of the Constitution relied on their knowledge of the Bible and the Ten Commandments,'' Sumner County Commissioner Frank Freels said.

''All laws that we have in one form or another can be traced back to the Ten Commandments.''

But Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Tennessee, believes the displays put the government in the position choosing between religions.

''Unfortunately there are communities within our state who, rather than celebrating religious diversity and religious freedom, want to use government to promote particular religious doctrine,'' she said.

''Of all times, this is a time to unite, and instead we see efforts to divide.''

The ACLU sued Hamilton County in January over its three displays, and trial is set for April 29. The group also has legal challenges pending in Kentucky, Alabama and Ohio.

Adding weight to the ACLU's legal argument is an opinion issued in April by Tennessee Attorney General Paul Summers deeming Ten Commandments displays on government property an unconstitutional promotion of religion.

''It's a dangerous thing when politicians attempt to co-opt religion for their own selfish agenda,'' said Rev. Roland Johnson Jr., pastor of Phillips Temple Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in Chattanooga. Johnson is a plaintiff in the ACLU lawsuit against Hamilton County.

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution says: ''Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...''

The U.S. Supreme Court in 1980 ruled that posting the Ten Commandments in schools amounted to an unconstitutional promotion of religion. The high court chose not to take up the issue in February when it rejected an appeal from Indiana Gov. Frank O'Bannon, who wanted to display a 7-foot stone monument of the Ten Commandments at the state Capitol.

But the justices were at odds when last May they passed on considering a dispute over a Ten Commandments display in front of the Elkhart, Ind., Municipal Building.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, in a dissent joined by Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, argued the case should have been heard. He noted a wall carving of Moses in the justices' courtroom signals ''respect not for great proselytizers, but for great lawgivers.''

Douglas Kmiec, dean of the Catholic University Law School in Washington, expects the high court will eventually take up the debate.

''The court is increasingly saying that the government should not be hostile to religion ... even when that private religious belief manifests itself in the public square,'' he said.

That gives hope to crusaders such as Griffin, 62, who is also a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in Tennessee.

''Our nation is in the sewer and the way you get out of the sewer is to begin with the definition of sin so that the people know what it is,'' she said. ''They don't know what sin is now. The Bible gives you the definition of sin. Thou shalt not steal, that piques your conscious.''

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On the Net:

American Civil Liberties Union: http://www.aclu.org/

U.S. Supreme Court: http://www.supremecourtus.gov/



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