MOUNTAIN CITY — A settlement has been reached in a federal lawsuit against Johnson County over a county resident’s display of posters that express his opinion that the Ten Commandments were not the foundation of American Law and providing a legal history of the separation of church and state.
The settlement in Stewart vs. Johnson County was announced Thursday by the Americans United for Separation of Church and State. The Associated Press reported the settlement included a payment of $75,000 to American United for legal fees and a token payment of $1 to plaintiff Ralph Stewart.
Stewart said he was pleased that he has won the right to display his posters in a public forum that has been established in the Johnson County Courthouse. He said he would have preferred for all of the displays to come down.
He said both his display and the original displays were opinions. With the settlement, he has now placed his opinion in the forum alongside the display of the Ten Commandments.
Kingsport attorney Bruce Shine, Stewart’s attorney in the case, said he was pleased with the compromise. “This is a victory for everyone in East Tennessee who believes in the First Amendment,” Shine said.
The suit was brought after Stewart attempted to place his posters in the public forum and was rebuffed by county officials. The lawsuit said the county had adopted a policy to permit the public to submit displays dealing with American government and law. The lawsuit indicated Stewart used many of the same sources as were used in the original display.
Gregory Lipper, an attorney with Americans United who was one of the attorneys in the lawsuit, said he was pleased with the settlement. He said it represented two victories.
First, Stewart is allowed to display his posters in the public forum.
Second, he said it changed the county’s policies so that “future Ralph Stewarts won’t have to go through the same things.”
“It’s a compromise, we did not get 100 percent of what we wanted, but this was a very strong statement,” Lipper said.
Lipper said Stewart’s posters will remain on display as long as the county chooses to keep its display of the Ten Commandments.
Attorneys for the county, William Cockett and Jonathan Scruggs of the Alliance Defense Fund, did not return calls for comments.