Cross City, Florida — A Ten Commandments monument will remain atop the steps of a Florida courthouse after a district court dismissed a case filed on behalf of an atheist.
As previously reported, the American Civil Liberties Union first sued officials in Dixie County, Florida in 2007 for displaying a privately-owned, Christian-themed monument on the county courthouse steps. The monument at issue is a 5-foot, 6-ton depiction of the tablets of the Ten Commandments, which states at the base, “Love God and keep His commandments.” It was erected at the Dixie County Courthouse in Cross City, Florida in 2006 by local resident Joe Anderson, Jr., who continues to own and maintain the display. On the back of the moment is a plaque that reads, “Placed, owned and maintained by Joe Anderson, Jr.”
A man who is only identified as “John Doe” from North Carolina contacted the ACLU in January 2007 to request assistance in having the display removed. According to court documents, Doe owns a winter home in a nearby county, and was considering purchasing land in Dixie County. He said that when he went to the courthouse to review property records, he “took offense at the display and felt shocked.” Doe further outlined that he was “deeply disturbed that the county openly embraced religious doctrine.”
The ACLU then filed a federal lawsuit against the county, claiming that the Ten Commandments monument violated the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution. The county retorted by stating that since the display is privately-owned, it cannot be construed as a government establishment of religion. Doe additionally included an affidavit, which alleged that the presence of the monument prevented him from purchasing property in the county.
“Were it not for the presence of the monument on the Dixie County Courthouse steps, we would have continued to look for … property in Dixie County,” he wrote, “And we would do so again immediately if the monument were removed.”
In July 2011, U.S. Senior District Judge Maurice Paul ruled in favor of the ACLU and Doe, both stating that the display was unconstitutional and that it had caused harm, because “but for the display [Doe would] be looking for, or already have purchased, property in the county.”
“Despite the actual ownership of the monument, the location and permanent nature of the display make it clear to all reasonable observers that Dixie County chooses to be associated with the message being conveyed,” Paul declared. “As such, the Court finds that the monument displaying the Ten Commandments is government speech and must comport with the Establishment Clause.”
However, when the ruling was appealed to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, it sent the case back to the lower court for further analysis. The court stated that there was a dispute over whether Doe truly suffered an “actual injury” from the display and ordered that additional information be obtained, as well as an evaluation of the witnesses.
The 11th Circuit also ruled that Doe lacked standing to file the lawsuit, stating that his testimony was inconsistent regarding what harm the display actually caused him. The court explained that Judge Maurice Paul failed to examine all of the evidence, as Doe’s affidavit conflicted with his deposition testimony.
“The existence of alternative or additional reasons for Doe’s abandonment of his search for property in the county could render Doe’s injury speculative – more ‘hypothetical’ than ‘actual,’” Judge Wilson wrote on behalf of the panel. “Additionally, if other factors caused Doe’s injury, that would undermine the claim that his injury is redressable by removal of the monument.”
After the case was sent back to the lower court, the ACLU filed a motion to dismiss the matter, admitting that it had no legal standing as the complainant no longer desired to move to the area. On Wednesday, the district court granted the dismissal.
“This was a great victory,” Mat Staver of Liberty Counsel, who represented the county, told reporters. “What it says about the bully tactics by the ACLU is that if you resist them, you can win. …The usual way they win is by intimidation or default – when the government officials cave in under the threat of a lawsuit.”