Ten Commandments tablet stirs up furor in Frederick

A letter by teen-ager over its placement in public park ignites fuss

July 10, 2002|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

FREDERICK -- Three blocks away from City Hall, in a quiet public park that has doubled as a cemetery, stands a stone tablet engraved with the Ten Commandments, a long-ago gift from the service organization that started Mother's Day.

This monument, not much taller than a headstone, has blended into the landscape of the second-largest city in Maryland since 1958. Now it's getting noticed -- but the kind of notice that could mean its demise.

Yesterday, scores of people flocked to the steps of City Hall in the withering midday sun to say they won't allow it to disappear without a fight.

"We come today to let our elected officials know that having God in Frederick on public display is all right," the Rev. Luke J. Robinson said. Robinson, pastor of Quinn Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church of Frederick, came bearing petitions he said carried 1,500 signatures, which "surely states that, in Frederick County at least, people don't want to get rid of God."

The hubbub began three months ago after Blake Trettien, 18, then a high school senior getting ready for final exams, wrote a letter to city and county officials arguing that the placement of the religious piece on public property violates separation of church and state ensured by the Constitution.

Trettien said he started thinking about the issue one day last summer as he walked through the downtown park. Then he heard a radio news report about a similar case in an Indiana town, where a judge ordered the city to remove a similar tablet from the front of its City Hall.

"I was kind of expecting them to write me back and say, `Thanks for your letter,' and that would be it," he said yesterday.

Instead, it sparked an incredible fuss he never imagined: The mayor has received hundreds of e-mails and telephone calls. The local Christian Coalition is involved. Elected officials are split.

Trettien's face has been in the local newspaper. He walked out after his Advanced Placement Environmental Science exam in May to find a television crew waiting for him. He debated Alderman David G. Lenhart on radio. People have called his family's home at all hours.

"Beyond the legal argument, Frederick County needs to make sure it's reflected we accept all people ... regardless of religion or belief in the Ten Commandments," said Trettien, who is off to the Johns Hopkins University to study in the fall.

Even though the monument has been here for more than four decades, the American Civil Liberties Union might sue if it isn't moved soon. For now, the community is discussing what to do. An unprecedented public meeting of city aldermen and county commissioners is scheduled July 25 (the park is jointly owned by city and county).

The options are several. City and county officials could decide to move the monument to the church across the street. The property it is on could be sold to a private group. Either option would satisfy Dwight Sullivan, managing attorney with the ACLU of Maryland.

"It's an unusual situation in that the fix is an easy one," he said. "This is an inherently religious symbol. It's inappropriate on government property. [But] no one is trying to make Frederick ... a Ten Commandment-free zone."

"On face value, [Trettien is] right," said Frederick Mayor Jennifer Dougherty. "By having the Ten Commandments on government property, it appears to be an endorsement of the Judeo-Christian tradition. I'm a Catholic, and I'm a daughter of an attorney, so I know I'm supposed to live by the Ten Commandments and govern by the rule of law, and the rule of law seems clear. We've been told by judges and lawyers -- if we fight this, we'll lose."

Lenhart, the alderman, said the mayor is wrong and calls her "a coward." He said he is convinced that the city has a unique situation on its hands because the statue is in a cemetery, a situation unlike others where courts have ordered the removal of religious symbols from government-owned property.

"I'm interested in preserving the Ten Commandments exactly where they're located, and there's no need to do anything other than that," he said. "I'm willing to fight to win or to lose, but I'm not willing to give up."

At the same time, he plans to build on the rush of emotion. He is proposing legislation to require prayer before City Council meetings.

Ten Commandments tablets started popping up in public in the 1950s, around the time that Cecil B. DeMille's movie The Ten Commandments was being released. Local chapters of the Fraternal Order of Eagles raised money to buy the monuments for their towns. Frederick's was dedicated June 29, 1958. It was originally placed in front of the old county courthouse -- where City Hall stands today -- but was moved in the 1980s when the courthouse moved. It found its home in Memorial Park and was placed in its location facing the street about four years ago.

Those tablets were placed in hundreds of government buildings around the country and have come under scrutiny.

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