WASHINGTON – Two Maryland communities will be watching closely this week when the Supreme Court hears arguments on the public display of the Ten Commandments.
The high court’s ruling will “absolutely” affect Ten Commandments displays in Frederick and Cumberland, said an attorney involved in one of the disputes.
The Supreme Court will consider two cases: One from Texas, where the Ten Commandments were displayed on the grounds of the state capitol, and one from Kentucky that deals with displays in a courthouse and a school. Opponents argue that the displays violate the First Amendment by making it appear as if the state is endorsing a particular religion.
“Everybody’s pretty much sitting back” and waiting to see what the high court does in those cases, said Allegany County Attorney William M. Rudd.
There was no legal threat in October when the county decided to remove a large granite marker of the Ten Commandments that had stood for decades on the Allegany County Courthouse lawn. The county moved the marker to head off any legal challenge.
In doing so, it almost sparked a legal challenge from residents upset that the marker was moved. No suit was filed, but community outrage forced county officials to move it back within days.
Rudd said the county is waiting for direction from the Supreme Court before taking any further action. He lamented that there was not guidance from the high court last year, when the county removed the display.
“If we had known they were going to take the case, we then could have waited on it,” Rudd said.
The Cumberland marker was one of many donated by the Fraternal Order of Eagles in the 1950s and 1960s to communities around the country, including Frederick. But while Rudd said there is “no legal controversy” for the moment over the Cumberland display, the Frederick marker has been the subject of one lawsuit or another for more than two years.
The American Civil Liberties Union sued Frederick, which had long displayed the Ten Commandments in a city-owned park. It dropped that suit after the city solicited bids and sold the monument, and the small parcel of ground it stood on, back to the Fraternal Order of Eagles.
But Americans United for Separation of Church and State took up the issue in 2003, suing both the city and the Eagles on behalf of Frederick resident Roy J. Chambers, who opposed the display. The case is pending before U.S. District Judge William D. Quarles, who received final arguments last week.
“We’re saying the sale of land was a sham,” said Rob Boston, a spokesman for Americans United. He pointed out that the only groups considered in the bidding process were those who wanted to preserve the monument.
Boston said the Frederick case is “a little unusual” because it challenges the city’s sale of land, not just the constitutionality of the monument itself. Because of that, the cases under review by the Supreme Court “may or may not have relevance” — he said they will simply have to wait and see.
The decision “may have serious implications or practically none,” Boston said, but conceded that the decision is “bound to have some impact.”
But an official with the American Center for Law and Justice, which is defending the Fraternal Order of the Eagles, said the Supreme Court’s decision will be “crucial” to the Frederick case.
The high court’s ruling will “impact all of the pending Ten Commandments cases,” said ACLJ senior counsel Frank Manion. He said the ACLJ had asked Quarles to hold off on the Frederick case, pending the Supreme Court’s ruling, but the judge decided to go forward.
Manion said the challenge for the Supreme Court will be to draw a distinction between mere “acknowledgement” of religion and “establishment,” which is unconstitutional.
“I don’t think they can,” he said.
In any case, Rudd said that Allegany County isn’t planning to follow in Frederick’s footsteps in regards to the Cumberland display.
“We’re not in a hurry to sell a part of the courthouse lawn,” he said.
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