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County won't hold hearing on Commandments

August 26, 1998|By MATTHEW BIENIEK

HUYETTS - The Washington County Commissioners on Tuesday night reversed an earlier decision and voted unanimously to cancel plans for a public hearing on a proposal to place a plaque containing the Ten Commandments in front of the Washington County Courthouse.

"It is clear this is not allowed by our Constitution - it's beyond me why the public hearing was called in the first place," Commissioner James Wade said.

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The decision effectively ends consideration of the proposal, the commissioners said.

On Aug. 11, they had voted 4-1 to hold a public hearing on the proposal by county resident Jeannette H. Rutledge that the Ten Commandments be placed in front of the courthouse.

Tuesday night's 5-0 vote was taken at Wilson Ruritan Club, where the commissioners met as part of the campaign to take county government to the public.

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Wade, who on Aug. 11 cast the lone vote against holding a public hearing on the matter, said such a hearing would do nothing but bring negative publicity to the community.

He said the other commissioners finally realized they could not authorize placing religious items on public property.

Wade said he had received support from the public for his stand.

Assistant County Attorney Beth Evans said the American Civil Liberties Union had threatened the county with a lawsuit if the proposal to put the plaque in front of the courthouse were approved.

Support voiced at a public hearing would not give the commissioners the authority to override the Constitution, which prohibits such a display, she said.

Commissioner R. Lee Downey, who on Aug. 11 seconded the motion in favor of the public hearing, on Tuesday made the motion to call off the hearing, which he said would pit one group against another.

Several commissioners said they were concerned about the costs of fighting a possible lawsuit.

"I just think they're calling it off so they don't have to deal with this," said Rutledge when reached by telephone after the vote.

Rutledge said she is not giving up and believes she has strong public support for her proposal.

"When God is behind it, it may take a while, but things will turn out all right," she said.

She said she has received 20 to 30 letters and calls of support for her proposal in the past two weeks. Rutledge said she had not heard from the County Commissioners since Aug. 11.

Rutledge, 85, is the widow of Irvine Rutledge, who had been a Washington County Circuit judge.

She had said private donors would pay the costs of erecting the plaque.

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