By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 1, 2006
A D.C.-based evangelical Christian group has a new idea for promoting the Ten Commandments: putting a monument to the stone tablets across the street from the U.S. Supreme Court.
Faith and Action says on its Web site that it plans to unveil the waist-high, 850-pound granite sculpture Saturday on the front lawn of the rowhouse on Second Street NE where the national group's offices are. But the group apparently doesn't have the approval it needs from at least two agencies, city officials and neighborhood activists said.
Faith and Action's president, the Rev. Robert Schenck, declined to return phone calls yesterday, as did his spokesman. On its Web site, the group said it tried unsuccessfully for five years to get the proper permits and decided to go ahead with the unveiling based on "common law that governs garden displays."
The sculpture "will be visible to the nine justices as they arrive and leave each day," the site said in explaining why the group undertook the project.
The house sits directly across a narrow street from the Supreme Court, and the Web site encourages people coming to Saturday's event to use the free parking in the court's employee parking lot. Yesterday, the sculpture was wrapped in dark plastic and red tape, its two-tablet shape clearly visible.
Schenck, a well-known evangelical activist, also heads the National Clergy Council and last year said he blessed every piece of furniture in the Senate hearing rooms where the Judiciary Committee considered the nomination of now-Chief Justice John Roberts.
Promoting the public display of the Ten Commandments is a central part of Faith and Action's mission. It presents stone tablets of the commandments to elected and appointed officials and asks them to "display and obey" the gift.
"At the heart of the Ten Commandments Project is an effort to restore the moral foundations of American culture," the group says in a brochure at its offices, where two reproductions of the commandments are on display on the first floor.
It wasn't clear yesterday how long Faith and Action has been at the Second Street location, although District property records show that a group called P&R Schenck Associates in Evangelism purchased the rowhouse in March.
Erik Linden, a spokesman for the city's Department of Transportation, said he believes the group needs a public space permit from the department before displaying the monument. And Linden and Bill Sisolak, a local advisory neighborhood commissioner and chairman of the commission's zoning committee, said Faith and Action also would need the approval of the Historic Preservation Review Board because its house sits in a historic district.
"We are notifying [Schenck] that he needs a permit to occupy what is deemed a public space, and we will work with him to ensure that he understands what he needs to complete the process," Linden said. He did not offer details about what a property owner in that area would need for a permit to be approved.
Linden said Faith and Action applied to the city in 2001 for a permit. However, he could not confirm last night which agency received the application or why it wasn't granted. He said no applications had been filed since that initial one.
The group said on its Web site that it tried to get permits from various agencies, including the city's Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. However, the DCRA does not govern public space displays and would not have been the right agency to apply to, said Karyn-Siobhan Robinson, a DCRA spokeswoman. She could not immediately confirm whether the group had applied to the agency.
Sisolak said yesterday that he had not heard about the monument proposal until contacted by the news media. Local Advisory Neighborhood Commission secretary Karen Wirt said she had not either but also said she hadn't had a chance to review all her records back to 2001.
The religious nature of the display should not be the main factor in the decision about the permits, Sisolak said.
"It's a large object not in keeping with the historic nature of the neighborhood," Sisolak said. "This guy may be within his rights. I don't know. But in my opinion it doesn't appear to be in compliance."