County commissioners this week unanimously voted to change the name and purpose of the Historical Documents Display Study Committee, which initially was tasked with choosing documents for permanent display in the George P. Jaynes Justice Center.
About one month after the County Commission unanimously approved the list of documents — more specifically, reproductions — the committee was renamed the Washington County Heritage Committee and will “continue their work by going into the schools with presentations and portable displays to be used to educate students regarding the rich history of our region and state.” The new name best reflects the committee’s “continued purpose,” according to a resolution introduced by the County Commission’s Public Safety Committee.
The document that has topped the list from start to finish is the Ten Commandments. Other documents include the Magna Carta; Watauga Petition of 1776; Declaration of Independence; Constitution of the State of Franklin; Preamble of the United States Constitution; The Bill of Rights and other amendments; and the Tennessee Constitution of 1796.
“Well, it’s one the committee selected,” Washington County Archivist and committee member Ned Irwin said about the Ten Commandments’ inclusion. “I have no opinion one way or the other. I tried to emphasize documents such as the Watauga Petition of 1776.”
County follows Hill’s lead
Washington County began the process in late 2012 following passage legislation sponsored by state Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough, which allows the display of historically significant national and state documents inside county-owned buildings.
The question, which often has found its way to the highest courts in the land, is whether either the displays or “educating” students on their historical value (America/Tennessee), specifically the Ten Commandments, are actually part of federal or state jurisprudence.
“The intent of the legislation is to inform and to educate, and there’s absolutely no reason to be ashamed that the Ten Commandments are included,” Hill said Friday. “I worked for several years to get this legislation passed. What the county is doing is great, and it really makes me happy they’re going forward with it.
“I think it is more than historically proven that the Ten Commandments are the basis of our laws dating back to the colonies and our founding fathers. And it was not the only document used by our founding fathers to formulate the Constitution.”
Hill’s representation is centered in Jonesborough, the demographic seat of Washington County government. Shortly after the legislation became active, County Commissioner Roger Nave, the Public Safety Committee chairman, introduced a resolution 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.
Hill grew up in Northeast Tennessee and is a children’s radio minister, hosting the weekend broadcast “Bible Buddies WHCB Kid’s Show with Mr. Matthew.” Hill also is a director and co-owner of the Blountville-based Right Way Marketing, a political telemarketing firm.
He defeated Democrat Nancy Fischman of Johnson City at roughly the same time his bill became law. Fischman said prior to the election she knew Hill had established Christian conservative ties in the area but that she strongly supported separation of church and state.
“Religion has no place in government,” she said during a visit to the Johnson Press.
George Sumner, with Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Nashville Division, said he was among members recently “discussing the legislative bill which made it ‘legal’ to post ‘historical’ documents at schools. It listed the Ten Commandments as a seminal document and did not specify what documents had to be posted to make it constitutional to post a document which is essentially religious, he said.
Sumner referred the Press to Stone v. Graham, 449 U.S. (1980), in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled “The pre-eminent purpose for posting the Ten Commandments on schoolroom walls is plainly religious in nature.” “Therefore it would seem inappropriate for a committee to be touring schools promoting the Ten Commandments and its inclusion (as a) ‘historical document,’ ” he said.
Officials support move
So are the biblical laws historical documents “related to the American and Tennessee Jurisprudence,” as the resolution says?
“He is 100 percent wrong,” Hill said. “I did my homework on this. I studied it at length, and it’s constiututionally sound. The Ten Commandments are historical in a culture-based context.”
Washington County Historian, former Sessions Court Judge and Heritage Committee member John Kiener told commissioners before the vote he felt the historical documents would be very educational if brought to schools. He also said the Ten Commandments should be presented to students at schools “to inform them why this country is a democracy.”
Following that comment, Director of Schools Ron Dykes walked to the podium and addressed commissioners, saying he “supported the concept 100 percent.”
How then do the commandments qualify as American or Tennessee history?
The Press asked Kiener late this week if he saw the potential for a conflict of interest in transporting a replica of these laws to public schools and teaching, or educating them on material found only in the Bible.
“I do not,” he answered. “The Ten Commandments form the basis for much of the moral teachings we use today. Certainly, the pioneer families who settled Tennessee followed these principles. As I understand the law, studying the foundations of our government, including the commandments, does not violate the separation of church and state set forth in the United States Constitution. Our work to date has been overseen by John Rambo, the Washington County attorney.
“We also are going to include educators on this new subcommittee. If they would advise that it is unconstitutional to bring a copy of the Ten Commandments into a public school in the state of Tennessee, I would probably ask, as an individual, if the county mayor or one of the members of the Legislature seek an attorney general’s opinion on the subject.”
Advancing, inhibiting religion
Rambo, now the 1st Judicial District’s chancellor and the county’s former attorney, wrote a communique to commissioners as they began to form the original committee. He said 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.
His June 2012 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,” Rambo wrote.
He 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.”
Hill’s legislation 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 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, statutes 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.
‘Packaging’ historical documents
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.
A federal court declared the Rutherford County Commission had violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment when they posted the Ten Commandments in the courthouse.
A few years prior to that ruling, 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 a ruling by the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals prompted him to write a letter to then-County Mayor Richard Venable advising that Sullivan County likely would lose if the issue went to court. Sullivan County was never challenged on the issue. But Street did say “The problem is when you hand out the Ten Commandments and try to package it with a group of historical documents.”