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10 commandments rejected

July 13, 1999|By SCOTT BUTKI

Commissioners vote 3-2 against Ten Commandments display

A new push to put the Ten Commandments on a plaque in front of the Washington County Courthouse was narrowly rejected Tuesday, the fourth failed attempt for the controversial idea in 10 years.

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"I am disappointed but I have to accept the wisdom of the other commissioners," Commissioner Paul L. Swartz, who led the new effort to get the plaque, said after the meeting.

Swartz said he may try again at some point during his four-year term.

The vote was 3-2 with Swartz and William J. Wivell supporting the proposal. Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook and Commissioners John L. Schnebly and Bert L. Iseminger voted against it.

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"If we want to erect the Ten Commandments we have many marvelous sites in Washington County, like church yards, that are more appropriate than a public building," Schnebly said.

The commissioners said their vote does not mean they do not support the Ten Commandments. The tenets should be on residents' minds but not at their public court houses, Iseminger said.

County Attorney Richard Douglas warned the commissioners that if a plaque were installed the county probably would be sued and lose because under legal precedent it would violate a clause in the First Amendment.

"I am not sure this is a matter that commissioners should take on. It is probably a matter that should be determined in the courts," Snook said. He is the only one of the five commissioners who was a commissioner in August 1998 when the issue was last considered.

At that time, the American Civil Liberties Union threatened to sue the county.

Plaque supporters, including Richard Renner of Hagerstown, accused the County Commissioners of being scared to take on the ACLU. They said that Christian conservative organizations might take on the case for the county for free.

An opponent of the idea said accepting such help would be a mistake. The County Commissioners should not act as a "front for the Christian right," said Sidney Bloom of Hagerstown.

Renner said during a 10-minute presentation that most of the people he knows support erecting the plaque.

"Why they are not here I don't know. Maybe they lack the moral courage," he said.

Renner said the County Commissioners need to remember that the idea of separation between church and state is not in the U.S. Constitution.

At one point, Hagerstown businessman Vince Dellaposta placed a $100 bill and a copy of the Constitution on a table and offered the money to anyone who could show him a reference to church and state separation in the Constitution.

Instead, Douglas quoted court precedent.

On Aug. 11, 1998, the County Commissioners voted 4-1 to hold a public hearing on a Ten Commandments proposal. On Aug. 25, the commissioners voted 5-0 to cancel the hearing.

The idea also was considered in 1989 and 1991.

Under Tuesday's proposal, the plaque would have been erected in 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 have been no taxpayer cost since the plaque would have been purchased and maintained by private donors.

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