Capitol tablets bring on criticism from ACLU - East Valley Tribune: News

Capitol tablets bring on criticism from ACLU

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Posted: Thursday, July 17, 2003 9:47 am | Updated: 2:00 pm, Thu Oct 6, 2011.

A state civil liberties group is demanding the removal of a 6-foot tall granite monument with the Ten Commandments that sits in a state park across from the Capitol complex in Phoenix.

The effort comes on the heels of the removal of several Bible verses from Grand Canyon National Park on grounds that religion and government were mixing in a way prohibited by the U.S. Constitution.

The Arizona chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has filed a similar complaint about the Ten Commandments, which was donated to the state in the 1960s by the Fraternal Order of Eagles. Pamela Sutherland, the ACLU chapter’s legal director, said if the monument is not removed, her group will file suit in federal court to have it forcibly taken out of Wesley Bolin Plaza.

Tom Knapp, chairman of the Legislative Governmental Mall Commission, promised Sutherland in a letter that the complaint will be reviewed by attorneys for the state with a response coming early next month.

This is not the first fight the Eagles have had over their efforts to place and keep similar monuments on government property elsewhere. Most notably, the U.S. Supreme Court two years ago refused to overturn a ruling by the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which concluded that a similar monument donated by the Eagles, which had stood in front of the municipal building at Elkhart, Ind., had to go.

Sutherland, in her complaint, said she believes the courts would reach a similar conclusion here.

"The monument . . . serves no secular purpose and must be removed from government property," she wrote.

She also noted a Phoenix Eagles chapter has offered to remove the statute from the park and put it on its own property.

"We urge your acquiescence to their offer and will gladly facilitate the relocation," she wrote.

The monument was dedicated in a ceremony in June 1964. Originally located immediately adjacent to the existing Capitol buildings, it was accepted by then Gov. Paul Fannin, with representatives of Catholic, Protestant and Jewish faiths in attendance.

The Phoenix Gazette reported at the time that this monument was one of many the Eagles had purchased, at $500 each, to give to state governments across the nation.

It was moved across the street to the newly dedicated park more than a decade later.

Last week, the National Parks Service removed three bronze plaques at the Grand Canyon that contained biblical passages. That move followed a complaint from a different chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which inquired whether the plaques, containing verses from Psalms, were proper.

Maureen Oltrogee, spokeswoman for the park, said the Department of Interior determined the plaques were not appropriate for federal public facilities.

The Indiana case could provide some clue as to what the U.S. Supreme Court might decide if the Arizona case gets that far.

In an unusual move, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote a statement saying one thing that convinced him the monument was religious and not secular is that the First Commandment, "I AM the LORD thy God," was larger than the following nine.

"The graphic emphasis placed on those first lines is rather hard to square with the proposition that the monument expresses no particular religious preference," Stevens wrote.

The Arizona monument is etched in the same way.

But in 1995, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to overrule a Colorado Supreme Court decision that allowed the Ten Commandments to remain on the Capitol grounds in that state.

Annie Laurie Gaylor, a founder of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, said some courts have concluded that if the monument is not alone but in a park or plaza with others — as opposed to being in a conspicuous place where the public must pass — it will be considered constitutional.

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