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Originally published: 2012-02-10 17:42:51
Last modified: 2012-02-14 08:41:53

FFRF demands removal of 10 Commandments from Newland Town Hall

Matthew Hundley / (matthew.hundley@averyjournal.com)

Where do the 10 Commandments belong? According to Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of Madison, Wis., based Freedom From Religion Foundation, they do not belong on the walls of Newland Town Hall.
“It belongs in a church. It belongs in a home,” said Gaylor.
In a letter dated Feb. 7, Patrick Elliott, FFRF’s staff attorney, requested that the plaque be removed, writing “we urge the Town of Newland to immediately remove the 10 Commandments display,” citing a local citizen’s complaint as the origin of the organization’s involvement. Elliot also requested written confirmation of any action the town takes on the matter.
Gaylor spoke with The Avery Journal-Times to answer a variety of questions about FFRF’s objections to the plaque and what they expect from the Town of Newland.
Town officials are still in the process of preparing a statement on the town’s position regarding the plaque. For the Town of Newland’s response to Gaylor’s comments and the letter from Elliott, look to the next issue of The Avery Journal-Times.
AJT: What is the process that has lead to this point?
Gaylor: “We only know about these things because of complaints from local members of the community. It’s pretty easy: We research it, we confirm it, we ask for a photograph and then we write our letter.”
AJT: What happens if the town refuses to remove the plaque?
Gaylor: “We are more optimistic than you. We are an educational group, a state/church watchdog. We find that often (all that is needed is) a little bit of a wake up call or a letter to public officials who are unknowingly or unwittingly violating the Constitution.
“We have had great success. We have removed 10 Commandments all around the country.
“We never know. There is always the potential for litigation, but we are optimists, and we use education, so I would never jump from this to litigation. We have to have a response from them.”
AJT: Can you explain the constitutionality issue?
Gaylor: “The Supreme Court has spoken on this issue. McCreary [McCreary County v. ACLU, 2005]: It is the precedent about interior 10 Commandments. It was a courthouse, not a town hall, but it is the same thing.”
AJT: How do the 10 Commandments in Newland Town Hall infringe on anyone’s rights?
Gaylor: “From the picture, we can’t tell whether that is a protestant version or a catholic version. The Catholic version doesn’t have the stuff about (graven) images.
“That’s another issue, because you are not just endorsing Christianity or a biblical version in general. You are actually endorsing sectarian differences. You are not just endorsing bible edicts; you can’t say it is Judeo-Christian, in other words.”
AJT: Does the placement of the commandments make a difference?
Gaylor: “It is an enormously important legal element. Not that you can just bury it, but it shows the governmental entanglement and the message of endorsement by the town clerk’s office.
“The government has no business telling you what god to worship, how many gods to worship or whether to worship any god at all. It’s none of the government’s business whether you want to putter around and make a graven image or what you do on the Sabbath. I think everybody should understand that.
"If you want to take the lord’s name in vain in your own home, then go ahead. The government can’t tell you not to do that.”
AJT: What if it was in an individual’s office?
Gaylor: “That can be workplace discrimination if it is a government employee’s office. Sometimes you see things like a tiny nativity scene on somebody’s personal desk, but if they are dealing with the public or a lot of employees, that is still a no-no because that is still private property using the city to promote their viewpoint. If they were the mayor or the personnel officer ...”
AJT: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Gaylor: “This should just come down. It belongs in a church. It belongs in a home.
“The town manager can put it up on his or her lawn. That is fine. We are not about sandblasting these things, but they belong on private property. It is really an extraordinary violation.
“We have no 10 Commandments in our foundational documents, in our Constitution. Our founders did not want religion and government to mix.”