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Commissioner backs Ten Commandments plaque

July 09, 1999|By SCOTT BUTKI

Washington County Commissioner Paul L. Swartz wants to put the Ten Commandments on a plaque in front of the Washington County Courthouse and says he would even help pay for a legal battle if the controversial idea gets the county sued.

The proposal, which goes before the County Commissioners Tuesday, marks the fourth time the idea has been considered in the last 10 years, Washington County Attorney Richard Douglas said. The other times were in 1989, 1991 and August 1998, he said.

"To permit the erection of the plaque would expose the county to a significant risk of litigation. In my estimation the county's chance of success in any such litigation would not be favorable," Douglas wrote in an Aug. 7, 1998, memo which he has distributed to the commissioners.

The plaque would be in the memory of the late Judge Irvine J. Rutledge. His wife, Jeannette Rutledge, made a similar request last year and supports this push as well. There would be no taxpayer cost since the plaque would be purchased and maintained by private donors, Douglas said.

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Rutledge could not be reached for comment Friday.

On Aug. 11, 1998, the County Commissioners voted 4-1 to hold a public hearing on the idea. On Aug. 25, the commissioners voted 5-0 to cancel the hearing, citing a threatened lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union as one of their reasons, and the issue was dropped.

After four new commissioners were elected in November 1998, Swartz informed Rutledge he was going to raise the issue again and Tuesday's discussion is the result of that promise, he said Friday.

But the plaque would violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment, Douglas said. He also does not think the county's insurance would cover a lawsuit on the issue, he said.

Swartz said he does not think the founding fathers meant for the separation of the church and state to outlaw plaques of this type.

"This whole nation was founded on scripture," he said.

While placing a plaque may result in legal trouble he is basing his position instead on the scripture, he said.

"I can walk out of the meeting with a clean conscience," he said.

Commissioner John L. Schnebly plans to vote against a plaque. He said there are plenty of other sites in the county that would be more appropriate for a religious item.

Commissioner William J. Wivell said he is concerned the plaque would suggest the county is placing one religion over another and that is not the intent of the founding fathers.

However, he is not sure how he will vote on the issue, he said.

Swartz said that if other religions wanted to place a plaque on the courthouse he would not object.

When the issue was raised in August 1998 the American Civil Liberties Union stated its opinion that a plaque would violate the law.

It is quite possible the ACLU will sue the county if the plaque is approved, Douglas said. However, he added, it is also possible that volunteer lawyers from Christian organizations would represent the county in court at no expense, he said.

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