Religious Liberties Legal Group Asks School District to Restore Ten Commandments Plaque to Middle School Wall

NEW PHILADELPHIA, Ohio — A Texas-based religious liberties organization has asked a school district in Ohio to restore a Ten Commandments plaque to a middle school wall after learning that the Decalogue display was removed following a complaint from the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF).

“[I]n light of a recent decision by the Supreme Court of the United States, your removal of this historic plaque because it contains religious symbolism may unwittingly be of the type of hostility toward religion that the U.S. Constitution forbids,” the letter from the First Liberty Institute to New Philadelphia City Schools states, as shared with Christian News Network.

The correspondence refers to the case of American Legion v. American Humanist Association, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last month in a 7-2 decision that the 40-foot Bladensburg cross veterans memorial in Maryland is not unconstitutional and should not be torn down, lest its removal be perceived as “not as a neutral act but as the manifestation of ‘a hostility toward religion that has no place in our Establishment Clause traditions.’”

The American Humanist Association (AHA) had sued the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission in 2014 over the presence of the cross, alleging that it violated the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. A federal district court upheld the cross while an appeals court ruled that it “excessively entangles” the government with religion.

Upon appeal, Justice Samuel Alito, who wrote the court’s opinion on behalf of the majority noted that there are many religious practices, holidays and references that are associated with the government, and many names of cities and towns have a religious origin, “[y]et few would argue that this history requires that these names be erased from the map.”

He also pointed to the ruling of Orden v. Perry, in which a Ten Commandments monument in Texas was upheld because it was of both a religious and historic nature.

“For believing Jews and Christians, the Ten Commandments are the word of God handed down to Moses on Mount Sinai, but the image of the Ten Commandments has also been used to convey other meanings,” Alito exemplified.

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“They have historical significance as one of the foundations of our legal system, and for largely that reason, they are depicted in the marble frieze in our courtroom and in other prominent public buildings in our nation’s capital,” he said.

In its letter to New Philadelphia City Schools on Wednesday, the First Liberty Institute echoed the sentiment in pointing to the Ten Commandments plaque displayed at Welty Middle School in New Philadelphia.

“Indeed, the display is ‘religiously expressive,’ but also communicates a message regarding the foundation of western law. And, at a basic level, the plaque is simply a message from the Class of 1926,” the organization wrote. “Thus, the removal of such a plaque because of its religious meaning alone ‘would not be viewed by many as a neutral act.'”

“The historical significance of the Ten Commandments, with its role in shaping civic morality and as a foundation of our legal system, ought to be welcomed in public. Its removal is not neutral and may be rightly interpreted by many as hostile toward religion. That is forbidden by the U.S. Constitution,” it contended.

First Liberty urged the school district to restore the plaque to the middle school.

BACKGROUND

As previously reported, in April, the Freedom From Religion Foundation was contacted by a parent who advised that Welty Middle School had a Decalogue plaque near the entrance to its auditorium. The plaque cited the class of 1926 at the bottom.

The organization then sent a letter to district attorney Brian DeSantis to ask that the display be removed.

“This plaque is a flagrant violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment,” FFRF’s letter claimed, contending that “no court has upheld the display of the Ten Commandments in a public school.”

The group also asserted that students and others would view the sign as an endorsement by the school, and those who are not Christian or Jewish would feel like outsiders.

“The district’s promotion of the Judeo-Christian Bible and religion over non-religion impermissibly turns any non-Christian or non-believing parent, student or staff member into an outsider,” FFRF wrote. “School children already feel significant pressure to conform from their peers. They must not be subjected to similar pressure from their school, especially on religious questions.”

Last month, it was confirmed that the plaque had been removed, but reluctantly. Superintendent David Brand said that he thought existing Supreme Court precedent would have to be overturned in order for a legal challenge to succeed. He also feared the costs of such a lawsuit.

“Despite offers from local law professionals to help the district, the ‘costs’ of defending are substantial. In addition to funding multi-year litigation, the district will divert staff, time, and energy from the district’s true purpose — student learning,” he told the Times-Reporter in a statement.

“Even more troubling, if the district’s case is unsuccessful as all other school cases have been, FFRF can seek for the district to pay FFRF’s legal fees, which have in at least one instance, exceeded $900,000.00. Clearly, challenging the issue legally would be an enormous risk and burden to the local taxpayers,” he said.

Brand advised that the plaque would be donated to preserve its historic nature, and the district will consider filing an amicus brief in a similar case that is before the courts.

But First Liberty Institute says that the district need not give up so quickly.

“The Ten Commandments plaque at Welty Middle School has remained on display for over 90 years. The law protects such historic and longstanding displays of religiously expressive monuments, symbols, and practices,” it wrote. “Removing such historical monuments with religious associations communicates impermissible hostility to religion. In short, the law allows New Philadelphia City Schools to restore the Class of 1926’s gift to its historic display at Welty Middle School. We urge you to do so.”

Adams

As previously reported, John Adams, second president of the United States, wrote in his diary on Feb. 22, 1756, “Suppose a nation in some distant region, should take the Bible for their only law book, and every member should regulate his conduct by the precepts there exhibited. Every member would be obliged in conscience to temperance and frugality and industry, to justice and kindness and charity towards his fellow men, and to piety and love, and reverence towards almighty God.”

“In this Commonwealth, no man would impair his health by gluttony, drunkenness or lust—no man would sacrifice his most precious time to cards, or any other trifling and mean amusement — no man would steal or lie or any way defraud his neighbor, but would live in peace and goodwill with all men. No man would blaspheme his Maker or profane his worship, but a rational and manly, a sincere and unaffected piety and devotion, would reign in all hearts.”

“What a Utopia, what a paradise would this region be,” Adams declared.

Read Adams’ writings here at the National Archives.


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