WASHINGTON – A Frederick man can sue the city over a monument of the Ten Commandments that sits on a parcel formerly owned by the city and visible from a public park, a federal judge has ruled.
U.S. District Judge William D. Quarles Jr. refused to dismiss a suit brought by Roy Chambers, who said the 5-foot-tall, tablet-shaped monument violates the separation of church and state.
Chambers claimed that last year’s sale of the monument in the Bentz Street Graveyard Memorial Ground to a private group was an attempt by Frederick to evade legal liability while allowing the memorial to remain on “apparently public property.”
The city argued that Chambers cannot sue because he has not suffered an injury, and because the memorial is on property now owned by the Fraternal Order of Eagles Aerie No. 106.
But Quarles said in an opinion filed last week that if Chambers can demonstrate that the transaction was a “sham,” the city may be liable.
The memorial is engraved with the Ten Commandments, along with an 11th commandment recognized by some Christian groups, two Stars of David, a Christogram — a Greek monogram for Jesus Christ — and an American eagle grasping the U.S. flag.
It is not the first time the city has gotten heat for the monument, which court documents said was donated in 1958 by the Eagles in order to state a national code of ethics, endorse patriotism and promote the movie, “The Ten Commandments.”
In August 2002, the American Civil Liberties Union contended that Frederick’s maintenance of the monument violated the separation of church and state. When the city learned that it could avoid a lawsuit if a private party owned the monument, it sold the property in December 2002 to the Eagles lodge, according to court documents.
But Chambers said that the sale does not make a difference because the memorial sits across from a public park bench and faces a public sidewalk and passing traffic.
In his decision, Quarles did not rule on the merits of the case. But he wrote that Chambers “must be given the opportunity to discover and present evidence by which the court may determine whether the . . . transaction was Frederick’s effort to evade a clear constitutional duty.
“Similarly, Chambers must be given the opportunity to prove that Frederick has transferred a traditionally public function to a private party,” he wrote.
Quarles also dismissed the city’s claim that Chambers could not pursue monetary damages in his case.
Chambers declined to comment on the case, but his attorney, Ayesha Khan, said she was pleased with the decision.
“Public parks should be places in which people of all faiths and people of no faiths feel welcome,” said Khan, legal director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “We were delighted that the court recognized the validity of our claim, and feel that our position will ultimately be found meritorious.”
Assistant City Attorney Justin Hayes said Frederick would not comment until it could talk to the outside attorneys it hired for the case.
“The city doesn’t have a position right now, doesn’t have a response,” Hayes said.