Are the Ten Commandments a historical document related to the history of Tennessee and the United States of America, or does displaying them in the George P. Jaynes Justice Center in Jonesborough indicate the county is acting with a “predominate purpose of advancing religion?”
Commissioner Roger Nave, the county’s Public Safety Committee chairman, introduced a resolution Monday authorizing the county to form a seven-member committee “charged with implementing Public Chapter No. 686 (House Bill 2685)...”
The vote was 25-0. There was no discussion.
The bill, championed by State Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough, and signed into law by Gov. Bill Haslam in April, gives Tennessee counties that right. In fact, the law identifies the Ten Commandments first among other worthy documents, such as the Magna Carta, Declaration of Independence, U.S. Constitution and Mayflower Compact.
However, the federal courts that would determine any constitutional issues are the Federal District Court in Greeneville and the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati. The latter has stated that counties that have acted with a predominate purpose of advancing religion in placing a monument or plaques that includes the Ten Commandments would violate the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
County Attorney John Rambo told the Johnson City Press that the resolution was not about the placement of the Ten Commandments, but his June 18 letter to commissioners clearly was aimed at explaining legal interpretations and possible constitutional ramifications for doing so.
“The government activity in establishing a historical documents display for county courthouses is allowed only if it has a secular purpose; it must not have a primary effect of advancing or inhibiting religion, or foster an excessive entanglement with religion,” County Attorney John Rambo wrote in his communique.
Rambo said appellate courts and the U.S. Supreme Court have upheld local government displays, including the Ten Commandments. However, the history of these local governments “reflected no evidence that promoting religion was not the primary purpose of their actions.”
The bill basically amended state law, and in each section where historical documents are named, the Ten Commandments are at the front of the line. The bill states that the Ten Commandments, as well as the aforementioned documents, “are recognized throughout the world” and “should be displayed proudly and resolutely in public buildings and on public grounds ... .”
The amended sections authorize local governments to display the various documents, statues and monuments in county buildings, though there is no mandate or requirement to do so.
“The enclosed resolution adopted by the Public Safety Committee reiterates the purpose of Washington County’s efforts to fulfill the state law that authorizes counties to create a public display of historical documents that are intertwined with the development of our current laws,” Rambo wrote.
In 2004, Sullivan County Attorney Dan Street recommended to that County Commission that it take down the Ten Commandments plaque that still hangs in the courthouse, saying he feared it violated the U.S. Constitution.
Street said at the time that a court ruling by the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, which includes Tennessee, led him to write a letter to then-County Mayor Richard Venable advising that Sullivan County likely would lose if the issue went to court.
“No, we were never challenged,” Street said Monday. “The problem with that legislation (the General Assembly’s adoption of the recent bill) is that it was never a state issue. I think it was sort of grandstanding. It’s more of a federal issue than it is a state issue. The problem is when you hand out the Ten Commandments and try to package it with a group of historical documents. I do know that Murfreesboro did have to pay out on a suit there.”
In 2006, Hill introduced similar legislation. It was quashed in a House subcommittee when Democrats controlled the chamber.
That same year, the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee filed a lawsuit challenging the posting of the Ten Commandments in “The Foundation of American Law and Government” display in the Rutherford County Courthouse.
The display in dispute included: the Ten Commandments, the Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights, the lyrics to the Star Spangled Banner, the Mayflower Compact, the Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the state constitution, and a drawing and explanation of Lady Justice.
A federal court declared that the Rutherford County Commission had violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment when they posted the Ten Commandments in the courthouse.
The county’s newly created Historical Documents Display Study Committee will design and recommend the documents for possible display. The committee’s members include Ned Irwin, Washington County archivist; Mike Ford, commissioner; Dr. Bill Kennedy, Jonesborough Historic Zoning Commission chairman; John Kiener (retired sessions court judge); John Rambo, county attorney; Mary Alexander, former commissioner and Langston Heritage Group president; and Lucinda Slagle, county librarian.