A school district in Pennsylvania is continuing its battle against a well-known atheist group over a Ten Commandments monument that has been on display at a local middle school for over 50 years.
Officials with the Connellsville Area School District in Southwest Pennsylvania filed paperwork in court this week to defend the monument, despite accusations from the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) that the display violates the Constitution.
Earlier this year, the Wisconsin-based atheist group filed a lawsuit against the district on behalf of an atheistic woman and her daughter who claim that they are disturbed by the monument’s presence. The statue, which was donated by the Fraternal Order of Eagles in 1957, includes the figure of an eagle along with an American flag, two stars of David and an inscription of the Ten Commandments. The organization gifted similar monuments to a number of school districts across the country in hopes that they would “provide troubled youth with a common code of conduct to govern their actions.”
The school district says that the display does not necessarily reflect a government endorsement of religion, but that there is no need to erase God from all academic life, either.
“Even if the religious aspects of the monument’s appearance and history indicate that it has some religious meaning, the district is not bound to display only symbols that are wholly secular, or to convey solely secular messages,” wrote attorney John Smart on behalf of the Connellsville School District this week. Smart is seeking to have the FFRF lawsuit thrown out of court.
“[Plaintiffs] contend that a public school district has no right to instruct its captive audience of impressionable students on which god to have, how many gods to have, or whether to have any gods at all,” FFRF argues in its complaint.
However, since the challenge was filed, members of the community have rallied around the monument, posting signs in their yard to display their support and hosting gatherings as a show of solidarity. Approximately 100 area residents also attended a school board meeting to stand behind the Connellsville display.
“My phone is ringing off the hook with people that want to fight this,” school board President Jon Detwiler told reporters in September when the fight began. “It’s not really the worst thing in the world to have our kids reading.”
FFRF argues that because many Christians and clergy have been so vocal and supportive of the monument’s presence, the statue has an obvious religious significance and therefore must not be allowed.
For now, reports state that the district has boarded up the monument, which sits outside of the middle school auditorium, until the matter is resolved. It used to be shrouded with plastic garbage bags, but area residents tore off the covering in protest.
Smart has advised that the school district is considering moving the display to the Connellsville Church of God property, which is adjacent to the local high school, in an effort to resolve the situation. The district says that the monument may be even more visible to the public at that location, as many at the middle school state that they were not aware that the display existed at its current home and did not know that the Commandments were inscribed thereon.
“I’m told by those who’ve been around a lot longer than me that the location was chosen so students would see it coming from the student parking lot,” solicitor Christopher Stern told the Post Gazette. “To be honest, I didn’t know that’s what they were.”
Reports indicate that the FFRF is not thrilled about the proposed new location either, as students “cannot avoid” the Ten Commandments from the high school’s athletic field.