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Dixie Check: Judge Orders Commandments Removed from County Courthouse Steps

| July 18, 2011

at the dixie county courthouse The First Amendment prevails over the 10 Commandments. (ACLU)

The First Amendment prevails over the 10 Commandments. (ACLU)

Dixie County is a small bump on Florida’s armpit around the Gulf, its geography slightly larger than Flagler’s, its population about seven times smaller, and its diversity many times smaller than that: it’s the sort of place where an established businessman can call a county commissioner to ask to have a monument of the Ten Commandments installed on the courthouse steps one week and have his wish granted the next.

That’s what Joe Anderson did when he got the Dixie County Commission unanimously to agree in January 2006, after just one phone call, to let him place a $20,000, five-foot-tall, six-ton granite monument of the commandments atop the courthouse steps, directly under the Dixie County Courthouse sign. The following line appeared at the foot of the monument, in capital letters: “LOVE GOD AND KEEP HIS COMMANDMENTS.” There were no other markings. The county attorney offered to defend against any lawsuit “for free.” The county claimed the monument was owned and maintained privately, by Anderson, and that it was part of a public “forum.”

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“The items placed in this forum do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the Dixie County Board of County Commissioners and are not sponsored or endorsed by the Board,” a sign placed next to the monument reads. The Ten Commandments monument is the only “item” in the “forum,” though inside the courthouse there are a few monuments dedicated to war veterans. The county commission enacted a rule forbidding anyone but residents or organizations of Dixie County to use the forum.

Three years earlier, the Polk County Commission had approved a $150,000 monument bearing the Ten Commandments and placed in front of the county administration building. But in that case the commandments are part of 15 different displays, including the Florida Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Magna Carta, and excerpts from speeches and letters, diminishing the explicit endorsement of religion.

The American Civil Liberties Union did not challenge the Polk County monument. It did challenge the Dixie County monument, and on Friday, Federal Senior District Judge Maurice Paul ruled that monument’s placement unconstitutional and ordered it removed within 30 days.

“Despite the actual ownership of the monument, the location and permanent nature of the display make it clear to all reasonable observers that Dixie County chooses to be associated with the message being conveyed,” Judge Paul ruled. “As such, the Court finds that the monument displaying the Ten Commandments is government speech and must comport with the Establishment Clause.”

Both sides sought First Amendment protection. Dixie County argued that the display is private speech, protected by the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment. The ACLU contended the display violated the establishment clause of the amendment, which forbids government endorsement of religion—singularly or plurally.

“If Dixie County is engaging in its own expressive conduct, then the Free Speech Clause
has no application. The Free Speech Clause restricts government regulation of private speech, it does not regulate government speech,” the judge ruled. “This does not mean that there are no restraints on government speech. Government speech must still comport with the Establishment Clause.”

Merrill Shapiro, president of Flagler County Americans United for Separation of Church and State and president of the national board of the same organization, has long opposed such displays on public grounds. “It is inappropriate, it is an endorsement of Judea-Christianity, it’s an endorsement of religion,” Shapiro said. In the case of the Dixie County monument, he said, “It is a very selective religious statement in an area the government doesn’t belong.”

“We hope that Dixie County officials will find a permanent place for it at a church or other house of worship, which is the appropriate place for religious monuments,” said Howard Simon, Executive Director of the ACLUFL. “Removing the monument is the right thing to do. It is not the business of government to promote religious messages about monotheism, idolatry, taking the Lord’s name in vain or honoring the Sabbath.”

Simon added: “Local governments can’t wink and nod their way around the highest law of the land just because they agree with the religious message they are supporting. In fact, that’s exactly what the Constitution prohibits – government sanctioned, promoted or enforced religion. It is sad that a federal judge had to order the County to honor the limited role of government required by our Constitution.”

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55 Responses for “Dixie Check: Judge Orders Commandments Removed from County Courthouse Steps”

  1. palmcoaster says:

    I do not mess up with anyone’s religion and respect them all, as I expect mine to be respected by others as well. The Ten Commandments are good advise to follow and don’t see a problem when I see them posted anywhere to the contrary a good reminder to be good. All religions are intended originally to elevate us and our spirits and make us better human beings. Nothing wrong with it! When our times will come to depart, we will all find out if what we believe in will be out there waiting for us, wether a big empty nothing or an Almighty hand extended to greet us.


  2. JohnB says:

    Since the U.S. Constitution, Amendments 1 & 14 bind (in original Federalism) the Federal govt’s jurisdiction I care more what Article I, Section 3 of the Florida Constitution says:
    “Religious freedom.—There shall be no law respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting or penalizing the free exercise thereof. Religious freedom shall not justify practices inconsistent with public morals, peace or safety. No revenue of the state or any political subdivision or agency thereof shall ever be taken from the public treasury directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution.”

    I cannot find a similar definition of Dixie County charter or statute but the point I wish to make is if in 2005 Texas, , established a lawful ‘secular use’ [non-worship] purpose for a monument depicting the basis for common, civil and criminal law I see nothing about a private donation of a monument depicting the origin of these concepts in their earliest form as violating the Florida Constitution. It’s one thing to have the right to dismiss or be shielded from dogma about a supernatural source for rational rules for society but it’s another to dismiss their value out of some protection of ignorance for the historical foundations of those laws.


  3. Seriously? says:

    Good grief. All these whiners about govt. intrusion…it’s on a public government building. You can have your church monuments, anywhere but on a fucking courthouse. Grow up and realize people disagree with you.


  4. tara a says:

    I think it is really sad for all of you who don’t believe in God, and that is fine, it is your right. I just wonder how many of you are from Dixie County or will ever have to pass by our courthouse? I personally just went by there yesterday and think it is a beautiful monument that represents the beliefs of the majority of people from Dixie County and our surrounding areas. I think it is a sad day when people from Flagler or wherever all of you come from that you have nothing better to do than downgrade a group of people and religion that you know nothing about. If any of you were to come live in Dixie County, you would see what a tight and supportive community it is. One that takes care of each other, goes to church and pray for their neighbors when they have hard times. And praise the Lord, He seems to always take care of us. Seriously…grow up and realize some people disagree with you, but we don’t have to be rude.
    And for all of you atheist and non-believers…continue your Bible study into the New Testament. Jesus Christ (Christians) teaches to forgive, to turn the other cheek, not to pick the splinter out of your neighbors eye when you have a plank in you own…I think you could stand to work a little bit of that concept into your own lives!


  5. Layla says:

    Wow! My point was that it would be nice to decide this LOCALLY, rather than in the courts. And just look what came out…

    Good post, Palmcoaster.


  6. tara a says:

    That was kinda part of my point Layla!


  7. Layla says:

    To Tara: Amen!


  8. Tim says:

    @Layla: Read the constitution, specifically the First Amendment, part of the Bill of Rights. This bill was required by some of the original 13 states, because they didn’t feel that the original Constitution guaranteed enough rights. Note that the First Amendment specifically calls for the separation of church and state. By insisting otherwise, you are being very un-American. End of story. Localities are not allowed to change this.

    It is unimportant what happens to your “soul”. It can’t go to heaven or hell, because those places do not exist (except possibly heaven==Hawaii).


  9. Victoria says:

    You assume all atheists never believed in after life. On the contrary, I was a diehard Christian for 25 years of my life. Brainwashed since birth. The difference between you and I is I decided to start using my brain.

    I actually pity you. The freedom from religion when you finally realize you don’t have to be afraid of “fire and brimstone” is the most relieving moment I’ve ever felt in my life.

    Do yourself a favor and learn about your religion, philosophically and historically. It’s all a bunch of bulls**t.


  10. Dave R says:

    Taxed, “I think it is really sad for all of you who don’t believe in God”

    I’m godless and actually quite happy and prosperous, thank you,
    but don’t cry for me, preacher man, we will all be the same dust

    The point is : church | state <- see the line ? stop crossing it

    Simple as Pi


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