County Officials in IA Agree to Remove Ten Commandments from Courthouse Grounds

Affiliate: ACLU of Iowa
March 15, 2001 12:00 am

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JOHNSON COUNTY, IA–The Board of Supervisors here today voted unanimously to honor a request by the Iowa Civil Liberties Union to remove a Ten Commandments monument from the courthouse lawn.

“It’s great that religious tolerance could be affirmed without legal action. The supervisors’ prudent decision agreeing to the removal represents politics at its finest,” said Ben Stone, Executive Director of the Iowa Civil Liberties Union.

Ironically, he added, today’s decision comes one day after 15 state lawmakers introduced a bill to post the Ten Commandments on wall of the Senate chamber.

We were patient with county officials because, while we wanted to fight for religious liberty, we also wanted to spare the community a divisive and costly lawsuit,” added Stone, noting that the ICLU had written to Johnson County officials in August of 2000, suggesting that the monument be moved.

The civil liberties group wrote the letter to county officials after receiving three separate complaints from residents regarding the legality of the monument’s presence.

The ICLU told the supervisors that it believed the monument provided a strong and improper endorsement of a religious symbol that has paramount importance to only one of the many religious traditions coexisting in the Iowa City area.

“”The implication is that the courthouse is effectively within the control of one religious segment and that they in turn get favorable treatment,”” said ICLU Legal Director Randall Wilson. “”We believe courthouses should symbolize impartiality and equal justice for all, rather than provide evidence of religious favoritism.””

The monument itself is made of granite shaped to resemble the stone tablets carried down from the mount in the biblical account of their origin.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Stone v. Graham, a 1980 case, that the Commandments are undeniably a sacred text in the Jewish and Christian faiths, and no legislative recitation of a supposed secular purpose can blind us to that fact. The Commandments do not confine themselves to arguably secular matters. Rather the first part of the Commandments concerns the religious duties of believers: worshiping the Lord God alone, avoiding idolatry, not using the Lords’s name in vain and observing the Sabbath Day.”

As if to add insult to constitutional injury, the Johnson County monument depicts above the Commandments an American flag clutched in the claws of a bald eagle.

“”The governmental endorsement of the Ten Commandments couldn’t be clearer,”” Stone said. “”Not only is a religious document enshrined next to the courthouse, it’s got an internationally recognized symbol of our government carved right into it.””

The monument has not survived without controversy over the years. In 1978, a legal challenge to the monument failed, due in part to the failure of the plaintiff in that suit to follow through with the litigation. Since that time, various rulings by the federal courts have consistently held that such religious displays on the part of government are affronts to constitutional guarantees of religious freedom.

The monument in Johnson County is similar to many other monuments around the country, including one in Linn County, Iowa that were donated by the Eagles as part of a national campaign in the 1960’s to reaffirm the importance of the commandments as a guide for youth.

The local Fraternal Order of the Eagles, which originally donated the monument to the county 37 years ago, has formally agreed to take the monument back.

In a letter agreeing to take the monument back, the local Eagles group charged that the monument had fallen victim “”to a time in our county’s history where a minority of citizens can interpret, pressure and threaten lawsuits against the majority.””

Evan Fales, a local opponent of the monument’s courthouse location, told the Johnson County Board of Supervisors in response that religious liberty isn’t subject to majority vote, and went on to say that “it would make no difference whatsoever to the principle at stake if Johnson County were 100 percent Christian.”

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