- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 22, 2002

When director Cecil B. DeMille commissioned stone slabs etched with the Ten Commandments to promote his blockbuster movie of the same name, he probably never dreamed they would cause a constitutional furor.
But almost 50 years later, the statues are being struck down by the courts literally one by one across the nation.
Appeals are pending in several states, and those who want the statues to stay are hoping the Supreme Court will hear the case as more and more towns including Frederick, Md. are being dragged into the fray.
Supporters of the statues say they have historical and cultural significance and should stay. Opponents say that keeping them on public property is a violation of the Constitution's ban on establishing religion. Court precedents are divided.
The furor had an unlikely beginning in a Minnesota courtroom more than a half-century ago.
In St. Cloud, Minn., in 1946, a juvenile-court judge confronted a defiant 16-year-old boy accused of causing a serious crash by driving recklessly.
The judge asked the boy what the Ten Commandments are.
The boy said he didn't know.
Appalled, Judge E.J. Ruegemer took out a Bible, handed it to the boy and told him his sentence was to learn the Ten Commandments and obey them.
"I decided to give him a chance; he can't follow laws he doesn't know," said Judge Ruegemer from his Minnesota home. He is retired and will turn 100 in July.
The incident prompted the judge to mount a campaign to spread the message by placing nondenominational prints of the Ten Commandments in courthouses across the nation. His club, the Fraternal Order of Eagles, soon had orders from cities across the country.
"I thought that if the commandments could be placed in courtrooms, then judges could point them out to offenders," he said.
Enter Hollywood.
In 1956, Mr. DeMille remade his 1920s classic, "The Ten Commandments." He stumbled across the effort in Minnesota and saw a way to promote morality and his movie.
Work on stone slabs etched with the commandments began, and soon they started cropping up in parks, state-capital lawns and courthouses around the country.
Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner and other cast members were dispatched to places such as North Dakota, Wisconsin and New York for the dedications.
In the ensuing decades, these 4,000 or so stone monoliths sat in increasing obscurity until a resident or civil liberties group occasionally stumbled upon them and protested their public placement.
In the 1990s, fierce fights over the statues ignited: Indiana, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Tennessee, North Carolina, Maryland, Colorado and the other states were dragged into the debate over whether the stone slabs should stay.
In March, a federal court ordered Milwaukee to remove the statue from the city hall. The Lacrosse, Wis., City Council voted in April to keep the statue in a public park.
This month, the city of Plattsmouth, Neb., appealed to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn a U.S. district judge's ruling to remove a statue from a city park.
Elkhart, Ind., announced this week that it is preparing to move its stone slab from in front of the city hall rather than make a costly appeal of a judge's ruling.
Frederick, Md., became embroiled in a battle over its statue after a high school student complained to city officials. Mayor Jennifer P. Dougherty wants the slab removed; the City Council is divided.
About two dozen jurisdictions are engaged or about to be in legal battles over the statues.
The federal rulings have been mixed. The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which includes Elkhart, Ind., in its jurisdiction, ruled last year that the statues must go. Two circuit courts have sided with the statues' supporters: the 10th Circuit, which ruled in a Colorado case, and the 4th Circuit, which ruled in a North Carolina case.
The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the Indiana case.
The high court ruled in 1980 that such displays are religious in nature unless integrated into exhibits of historical documents.
Proponents argue that the Ten Commandments are not just religious, but also have historical and cultural value as the basis of Western civilization and secular law.
"This is part of who we are as American people," said Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, a group that focuses on family and religious issues and is involved in most of the cases around the country.
"They are treating the Ten Commandments as if they were pornographic. These statues have a historic significance and were placed for a secular purpose, not to establish religion," Mr. Sekulow said.
But opponents say there is no way around the fact that the commandments are religious.
American University law professor Jamin B. Raskin, a First Amendment scholar, said that it is clear the Supreme Court should take up the matter, and that it is clear based on past decisions what that should be.
"There is no secular purpose in placing the Ten Commandments" in a public arena, he said. "It is equally insulting to the religiously devout and atheists to assert that it is not a religious document."
In the meantime, cities find creative ways to circumvent the courts by adding historical statues so that it becomes a constitutionally permissible "exhibit."
The strange origins of the contentious battle aren't lost on all.
"This whole thing started as a movie-marketing scheme," Mr. Raskin said.


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