Tuesday, June 21, 2005

BALTIMORE — A privately owned Ten Commandments monument may remain on display in a Frederick city park, a federal judge ruled yesterday.

U.S. District Judge William D. Quarles Jr. concluded that no reasonable observer would think the 5-foot-tall granite marker is meant as an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion.

Judge Quarles also found that the city’s sale of the monument and an accompanying strip of parkland to the local Fraternal Order of Eagles (FOE) chapter in 2002 was proper. Plaintiffs Roy J. Chambers and the District-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State had claimed the transaction was a sham designed to keep the monument on what appeared to be city land.

Frederick Mayor Jennifer P. Dougherty said the ruling affirmed the the city’s decision to sell the monument to avoid a legal battle with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The sale caused the ACLU to drop a lawsuit challenging the display.

“We sold the land, and the Eagles could do with it what they will, and they have, and that’s that. And I hope this puts an end to it,” Miss Dougherty said.

Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United, was dismayed by the ruling.

“I still believe that a passer-by would still think this is a government display of a religious monument and would not understand the long, tortured history of this lawsuit,” he said.

Judge Quarles made a distinction in his written opinion between a passer-by and a reasonable observer. He defined the latter, in language borrowed from another case, as one who is “aware of the history and context of the community and forum in which the religious display appears.”

He said a passer-by might interpret the monument as a government endorsement of religion.

“But a reasonable observer, familiar with the history of the commandments monument, and the litigation surrounding its location, would understand that Frederick sold the property to the FOE to dissociate itself from whatever message the monument conveys,” Judge Quarles wrote.

Mr. Chambers, of Frederick, and his attorney, Benjamin C. Block, said they needed more time to study the ruling before deciding whether to appeal.

Attorneys for all parties expressed surprise that Judge Quarles had ruled instead of waiting for the Supreme Court to announce decisions in similar cases involving a monument on the grounds of the Texas state Capitol and framed copies of the Ten Commandments in two Kentucky courthouses. The high court heard arguments in those cases in March and is expected to rule within days.

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