Federal Appeals Court Hears ACLU Argument Against Government Endorsement of Ten Commandments

April 7, 2003 12:00 am

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PHILADELPHIA – The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania today argued before the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit that a Ten Commandments plaque on the county courthouse violated principles of religious freedom. The appeals court will now decide whether to uphold the trial court’s order to remove the plaque.

“Any reasonable person observing the plaque is going to take away the message that the government endorses a certain religion,” said Stefan Presser, Legal Director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “It was courageous for our clients to bring this case, especially in light of the threats on their lives that they have received.”

The ACLU’s case, Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia v. County of Chester, was brought in 2001 by Sally Flynn, a Chester County resident and member of the Freethought Society, an organization of agnostics, atheists and freethinkers. On March 6, after a two-day trial, Judge Stewart Dalzell of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania ruled in the ACLU’s favor. The County appealed, arguing that the Ten Commandments plaque in the case was not religious, but a secular, historical monument.

“We disagree with the notion that our tax money should be spent and public facilities used to allow the government to inject itself into religion,” said David DiSabatino, Executive Director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania said. “The people of Chester County should not be given the message that only certain believers can receive justice at the courthouse.”

As recently as February 2002, the United States Supreme Court refused an appeal by government officials to permit the posting of the Ten Commandments on public property. Since the filing of the Freethought case in 2001, courts in Maryland, Alabama, Kentucky and Nebraska have also ruled that similar displays were illegal.

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