By Alan Cooperman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 28, 2005
Within hours of yesterday's Supreme Court decision allowing a Ten Commandments monument on the grounds of the Texas Capitol, Christian groups announced a nationwide campaign to install similar displays in 100 cities and towns within a year.
"We see this as an historic opening, and we're going to pursue it aggressively," said the Rev. Patrick J. Mahoney, director of the Washington-based Christian Defense Coalition, which organized vigils outside the Florida hospice where Terri Schiavo died this year.
Although disappointed that the court ruled in a related case that two Kentucky counties could not hang framed versions of the Ten Commandments in their courthouses, Mahoney said the Texas decision was sufficient to "open up a whole new frontier" for preserving the United States' "Christian heritage."
Groups on both sides of the issue predicted that the pair of Supreme Court rulings, rather than clarifying a gray area of the law, would spawn more disputes over Ten Commandment displays in parks, town halls and courthouses. They said the displays are now the front line of a proxy war, standing in for the bigger issue of the place of religion in public life.
"I think litigation across the board is going to pick up, because the decisions that came down today just threw mud into murky waters," said Jared N. Leland, a lawyer at the nonprofit Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which filed friend-of-the-court briefs defending the Ten Commandments exhibits in Texas and Kentucky.
In Western Maryland, the Rev. Ronald Yost predicted more fighting over the Ten Commandments monument on the lawn of the Allegany County courthouse. County officials briefly removed it last October, before Yost organized protests for its return.
In Rockville, Montgomery County Attorney Charles W. Thompson said there is no plan to remove a bronze plaque from the judicial center, since "it is not a display of the Ten Commandments, it's a display of some of the founding principles of law." The plaque was taken down in 1998 and then was put back up after the county reached an agreement with the American Civil Liberties Union to make it part of a broader historical exhibit.
Mahoney, a minister in the Reformed Presbyterian Church, said a coalition of evangelical Christian organizations would analyze the Supreme Court rulings and formulate guidelines for erecting Ten Commandments monuments that can pass legal muster. He said he sent fundraising letters yesterday to 600 potential donors, hoping to create a national fund to pay for the monuments.
Mahoney announced the campaign on the steps of city hall in Boise, Idaho, a case study in the political and legal complexities of Ten Commandments displays. Last year, the Boise City Council voted to remove a Ten Commandments monument, virtually identical to the Texas one, from a public park. The move sparked a petition drive and lawsuit by citizens demanding its return.
Brandi Swindell, director of the Keep the Commandments Coalition of Idaho, said Boise should immediately restore the monument to the city's Julia Davis Park because, in her view, it is now clearly constitutional. But Mayor David Bieter said in a telephone interview that it would be safer to leave the monument on private property, in front of the Episcopal church where it has rested for the past year.
"Our frustration is, it's very difficult to tell what kind of display would be constitutional" in light of the Supreme Court's split decisions, Bieter said. He noted that a majority of the justices emphasized the context of the displays, upholding the Texas monument because it was one of 38 historical markers and monuments around the state Capitol.
The mayor, a lawyer, said Boise's display had been practically alone in the park. "A single monument where it was -- I think we'd have a tough time arguing that was in line with today's decision," he said.
By all accounts, the Boise monument went virtually unnoticed for decades until it came to the attention of the Rev. Fred Phelps, a Kansas minister who travels the country inveighing against homosexuality. Phelps argued that if Boise allowed one religious display on its property, it must allow him to erect a monument declaring that Matthew Shepard, a gay man murdered in a hate crime in Wyoming 1998, is "burning in hell."
Bieter said the City Council decided to move the monument so that it could reject Phelps's application without risking a costly lawsuit. Eliot Mincberg, chief counsel for People for the American Way, which opposed the Ten Commandments displays in Texas and Kentucky, said he did not believe that the Supreme Court's decisions would support Phelps's argument.
Staff writers Tim Craig and Fredrick Kunkle contributed to this report.