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County attorney says Ten Commandments plaque poses risk

August 14, 1998

By MATTHEW BIENIEK

Staff Writer

Putting the Ten Commandments on a plaque in front of the Washington County Courthouse as a county woman has requested would be unconstitutional, according to both the county attorney and a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland.

"The result of doing that would be to embroil the county in a lawsuit they would end up losing," said ACLU staff attorney Dwight Sullivan of Baltimore.

County Attorney Richard Douglas, who gave the commissioners a written opinion on the proposal, would not comment, citing attorney-client privilege. The Herald-Mail, however, obtained a copy of the memorandum on Thursday.

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Douglas said in the memo that it was his recommendation "that the proposal be declined on constitutional grounds."

The memo said that "To permit the erection of the plaque would expose the county to a significant risk of litigation. In my estimation, the county's chances of success in any such litigation would not be favorable."

On Tuesday, county resident Jeannette Rutledge asked the commissioners to put up a plaque of the Ten Commandments outside the courthouse. She said private donors would pay for the project.

The Washington County Commissioners voted 4-1 on Tuesday to hold a public hearing to give people a chance to express their opinions on the subject. No date has been set for the hearing.

Douglas' memorandum notes that the proposal to put a plaque of the Ten Commandments at the courthouse is not a new one.

The proposal was made in 1989 and again in 1991, Douglas' memo says. In those cases, then-county attorney Ralph France concluded that to erect a monument containing the text of the Ten Commandments would be unconstitutional, the memo said.

County Commissioner Ronald L. Bowers said the plan to hold a public hearing has drawn positive comments.

"They appreciate the opportunity to let the public have its say," he said.

Sullivan said a legal challenge was certain should the county erect the plaque.

"Will you hold on a second and let me grab a Bible?" asked Sullivan during a Wednesday phone interview from his home.

After a brief pause, he read off the first commandment.

"Half the commandments are explicitly and inherently religious, " he said.

Putting religious symbols on public property would violate the separation of church and state provided for in the U.S. Constitution, he said.

It's the religious and moral values of the Ten Commandments that make them valuable, said George F. Michael, chairman of the Concerned Christian Committee, a conservative political action committee based in Washington County.

Michael said he supports the idea of putting up a plaque of the Ten Commandments in front of the courthouse.

"I certainly think that our nation has a great need for a return to the strong moral values our country was founded upon, " said Michael.

The Ten Commandments teach respect for God, marriage and each other, he said.

Michael said the phrase separation of church and state is not in the Constitution, and that religious references are common in government.

"We have 'In God We Trust' on our coins and have a chaplain lead prayer in the Senate,"he said.

David Buchenroth, president of the Washington County Council of Churches said he couldn't speak for local members.

"My personal opinion is that the Ten Commandments don't have a place in front of the courthouse," he said

The courthouse is a public place and not a sacred place where it would be proper to erect religious symbols, he said.

"If the Christian churches are going to be debating, they should debate about something that will affect the welfare of people in the community," he said.

Putting the Ten Commandments on government property is unfair to members of the community who are not Christian or Jewish, said Rabbi Janice Garfunkel of Congregation B'nai Abraham.

Garfunkel said the separation of church and state protects religion. The founding fathers knew religious discrimination in England where the state supported the Anglican church and persecuted others, she said.

Anyone would be free to erect a plaque of the Ten Commandments on private property near the courthouse, said Sullivan.

Sullivan said he saw no problem with holding a public hearing on the issue.

"It's the American way," he said.

Spike Tyson, national director of American Atheists, asked how people would feel if a plaque with the beliefs of atheists, gays, or other minorities were to be placed in front of the courthouse.

When religious symbols go up on public property, the government is giving approval to a particular type of religion, he said.

"They don't want freedom of religion, they want the freedom to push their religious ideas upon others," he said

Dr. Abdul Waheed, President of the Western Maryland Islamic Society was out of town and couldn't be reached for comment.

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