LOVINGSTON, Va. — A county board of supervisors has voted to temporarily cover painted lettering inside of its local circuit courthouse that reads “Keep God’s Commandments” following a complaint from a prominent atheistic church-state separation organization.
The phrase, which was written on a wooden beam below the balcony in the Nelson County Circuit Courthouse in the 1800’s, has been covered under layers of paint for the past 50 years.
As it was carefully unveiled in the midst of a renovation project earlier this year, the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) decided to send a letter to the county Board of Supervisors to urge officials to keep the exhortation concealed after learning that some on the board might want to keep the message.
“While the original ‘Keep God’s Commandments’ lettering may date to the 19th century, that does not absolve the County from taking actions today that violate the Establishment Clause,” the organization asserted.
“Notably, it was reported that restoration work on the courthouse involved ‘carefully and painstakingly’ removing old paint in order to uncover the lettering and some county supervisors have expressed an interest in keeping the religious message. Such efforts to display a religious message are not akin to retaining a long-standing monument,” it contended.
FFRF said that the exhortation, which would face the judge and jury, would create the impression of government endorsement of religion and could also affect the ability for residents to obtain a fair trial.
“Given the size of the ‘Keep God’s Commandments’ lettering and its prominent placement, a reasonable observer would view it as an endorsement of religion by the County,” it wrote. “If the County does not remove or cover this wording, it is unmistakably placing its stamp of approval on the religious message.”
“[Further,] the religious wording implicates not just the First Amendment, but also the ability of litigants to receive justice from an impartial jury and judiciary,” the group asserted. “Any court decision will have the stain of religious influence, which deprives citizens of their right to a fair trial.”
According to the Nelson County Times, four citizens appeared at the monthly Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday to speak about the painted lettering, all of which supported keeping the display. Some told the board to ignore those seeking to force the county to cover it back up.
“My fourth-great-grandfather Thomas Nelson Jr., the namesake of this county, didn’t give his wealth to see the future generations make a [politically] correct motion to cover up the words of our faith,” Thomas Nelson Jr. stated.
“[O]ur nation was founded as one nation under God,” said Wendy Nelson. “I am shocked. I am astounded. I am disappointed, and I am angry that this is even an issue.”
While most of the board said that they personally would prefer to keep the message uncovered, they expressed concern about the expense of a lawsuit and said that the decision as to whether or not to reveal the lettering should be in the hands of Judge Michael Garrett, who presides over cases at the courthouse.
It was therefore agreed upon that a temporary removable covering should be placed over the phrase, so that if it is ever decided to display the exhortation, it may be done easily.
The sole board member who voted against the covering was Larry Saunders, who said that the county should be more concerned about giving an account to “the big Judge.”
“As I’ve stated all along, I’m not in favor of covering it up,” he said. “I’m in favor of restoring it and being proud of it. I know I’ll be outvoted, but … I’m proud to say that I’m in favor of keeping it uncovered.”
FFRF says that it believes the board “acted in response” to its letter.