- The Washington Times - Friday, May 25, 2001

GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. — During his term as mayor of this rural western Colorado city, Gene Kinsey thought his role was clear. "What I said is that Im the chief pothole fixer, not the spiritual leader," Mr. Kinsey says.
But it was his stand on the separation of church and state that ultimately led to the undoing of his political career. Last year, the American Civil Liberties Union put the mayor and council on notice: Either remove the 42-year-old Ten Commandments sculpture in front of city hall or face legal action.
Not wanting to embroil the town of 45,000 in an expensive lawsuit, Mr. Kinsey came out in favor of moving the sculpture to a churchyard beside city hall. But the voters decided more was at stake than dollars and cents. On April 6, Mr. Kinsey was defeated in his re-election bid, losing to a candidate who favored keeping the Ten Commandments display on city grounds.
Mr. Kinsey may not have realized it at the time, but he had become caught in the cross fire of a pitched legal battle being waged nationwide between the ACLU and the Christian Coalitions American Center for Law and Justice. About a year ago, the ACLU began a legal offensive aimed at removing displays of the Ten Commandments from city halls and other civic buildings throughout the United States.
That offensive was quickly countered by the ACLJ, a public-interest law firm affiliated with the Christian Coalition. Noting that most of the targeted communities can ill afford to counter the ACLUs legal machine, the ACLJ has offered legal advice and, in some cases, free legal representation to a dozen small, mostly Midwestern towns where the residents are unwilling to give up their Ten Commandments displays without a fight.
The battle could wind up with a showdown this year before the U.S. Supreme Court.
"Its more of a defensive maneuver than an offensive maneuver on our part," said ACLJ chief counsel Jay Sekulow. "Its become pretty apparent that the ACLU is mounting an organized, targeted effort. The pressure on these communities is huge."
Mr. Sekulow said he believes the ACLU move is designed to take advantage of what he sees as a judiciary that has shifted to the left. "Theyre taking advantage of eight years of Clinton administration appointees," Mr. Sekulow said.
An estimated 4,000 Ten Commandments monuments are on display throughout the nation. Over the past year, the ACLU has challenged more than a dozen of those, Mr. Sekulow said.
"That doesnt sound like much, but there havent been a dozen lawsuits like this in the last 20 years," he said.
The ACLU argument is familiar: Displays of the Ten Commandments on public grounds represent a government endorsement of religion and therefore violate the constitutional separation of church and state. The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has affirmed that argument in a decision against the town of Elkhart, Ind., where the city council is fighting to keep its Ten Commandments display.
The national ACLU and ACLU of Colorado did not return phone calls requesting comment.
The ACLJ, which argued for the defense in the Elkhart case, is pursuing the matter before the Supreme Court. The court is expected to decide by June whether to hear the case.
Supporters of the Ten Commandments displays argue that the documents significance extends beyond religion and well into the foundations of Western law. ACLJ senior attorney Francis O. Manion, who is defending the town of Plattsmouth, Neb., in an ACLU lawsuit, stated last week that displaying the Ten Commandments is nothing unconstitutional.
"The Ten Commandments have played a vital role in the development of Western law, and that has been recognized many times by the U.S. Supreme Court," Mr. Manion said. "We believe the court will find the ACLUs challenge to be legally flawed."
Still, the threat of an ACLU lawsuit is a powerful incentive for communities to remove such displays. A few weeks ago, the town of Jackson, Iowa, tore down its Ten Commandments monument under threat of legal action.
Other communities have tried to compromise, with little success. Earlier this year, three communities in Kentucky came up with a creative solution after a federal judge ordered them to remove their Ten Commandments displays in response to ACLU legal action.
The Kentucky civic leaders complied with the order, but then replaced the Ten Commandments displays with new ones that included the commandments along with documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. The ACLU hauled the leaders back into court, but the judge refused to jail them, ordering the two parties to try to settle their dispute.
In Grand Junction, the city council tried to address the ACLU of Colorados concerns earlier this year by placing a disclaimer in front of its 4-foot-tall Ten Commandments sculpture. The disclaimer reads that the display "is not intended to endorse any particular system of religious belief," but rather to honor the document as "some of mans earliest efforts to live by the rule of law."
Not good enough, said the ACLU, which threatened to take the city to court unless it removed the sculpture. The council responded by holding a five-hour hearing in March to gauge public opinion. Nearly all of the 66 residents who testified said they wanted to keep the Ten Commandments in front of city hall.
"The community was very strongly behind leaving it up," said city spokeswoman Kristin Winn. "Its been here 40 years. Its the basis of the laws of the land. It was donated to us in that spirit. It has religious significance, but it also has civic significance."
With the lawsuit pending, the city is trying again to modify its display so that it passes constitutional muster. The council has hired a local landscape architect to design a "Cornerstone of Law and Liberty" plaza, which would include the Commandments along with the Magna Carta, the Mayflower Compact, the Declaration of Independence, the preamble to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
Councilman Reford Theobold, who is leading the effort, notes that the idea has at least one legal precedent: The Colorado Supreme Court has allowed a Ten Commandments statue to stand in Lincoln Park in Denver after learning that the park includes many other statues and monuments.
But he doubts the plaza will mollify the ACLU. "Will this satisfy them? I suspect because of the nature of the suit, they dont want a constitutional solution. They want their solution," he said.
"But Im quite confident the court will accept it. This has been court-tested and it should be acceptable constitutionally," Mr. Theobold said.
Why so many Ten Commandments displays? Many of the monuments were donated during the 1950s and 1960s by the Fraternal Order of Eagles, a service organization. The statues reportedly were inspired by the release of the epic 1956 movie "The Ten Commandments," starring Charlton Heston.
The Grand Junction sculpture is typical: Shaped like a tablet, the sculpture is carved of granite, stands 4 feet tall and sits on a concrete pedestal. Carved along with the Commandments are an eagle, an American flag and the Star of David.
Advocates of the statues also have started a petition drive to drum up congressional support. The ACLJ has collected about 100,000 signatures on a petition urging Congress to pass a joint resolution affirming the rights of communities to display the Ten Commandments.
Even if the petition is successful, Mr. Sekulow predicts, the legal battles over the Ten Commandments have just begun. "Unless the Supreme Court jumps in early, this is going to be a fight that goes on for years," he said.


Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide