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On Faith

National Rift Resonates in Md. Display

Ten Commandments On Public Site at Issue

By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 2, 2005; Page C01

On Faith appears the first Sunday of each month.

CUMBERLAND, Md. -- When word got out in October that public officials had removed a 47-year-old stone engraving of the Ten Commandments from the courthouse, people in this small mill town took action.

The protest by Edward Taylor Jr., the Rev. Ronald Yost and others over removal of the monument, on display in Cumberland, Md., since 1957, prompted its return. (Photos Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)

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Thelma Galford, 72, owner of a beauty salon in town, spread the news to customers.

Edward W. Taylor Jr., 41, a conservative Roman Catholic who heads a local organization that created an antiabortion memorial, called for a protest on the courthouse steps.

The Rev. Ronald E. Yost, 41, heard about the demonstration on the local radio station and went.

Likewise, retired businesswoman Anna M. Sheetz, who at 68 years old had never before attended any kind of protest, found herself milling around with about 50 other demonstrators. Sheetz acknowledged that she quit going to church years ago -- and yet the removal of the Ten Commandments prompted her to act.

"I got a little red-hot," Sheetz said. "People around here are just good Christians, and they're not going to have the Ten Commandments taken away from them."

Emotions continue to run high in this town of more than 21,500 after public officials ordered the display moved based on a complaint that it violated the separation of church and state -- and then returned it two days later. Similar controversies have occurred throughout the country, prompting the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the matter.

So what is it about these slabs of stone that stir people's hearts?

For some, such displays are important daily reminders of the essential rules that they believe a healthy society should observe.

"These are the orders from God himself," said Taylor, president of the Cumberland Historic Cemetery Organization. "If they're taken away, it's a form, I would say, of saying 'No' to God. It's a way of saying we won't honor these Ten Commandments."

And that has potentially dire consequences, Taylor said. Like Old Testament prophets, he believes that God, as an agent of human history, punishes societies through calamities if they spurn Him.

Others view the Ten Commandments display from a historical perspective, rather than a solely religious one. They argue that the story of Moses and the Ten Commandments represents a critical moment in the evolution of law givers and that the American justice system rests on their principles.

"All the laws in the courthouse are based on the Ten Commandments," Sheetz said.

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