ACLU seeks removal of stone

Ten Commandments replica in park is target

Constitutional violation claimed

Frederick renamed site to skirt conflict

August 24, 2002|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

After months of trying to persuade city leaders to move a large stone replica of the Ten Commandments from a public park in Frederick, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland filed suit yesterday in federal court in an effort to force the issue.

In a 15-page complaint, Baltimore attorney Dwight H. Sullivan said not only is the placement of the tablets on government property an endorsement of religion that violates the First Amendment, but the city's efforts to remedy the situation have only made things worse.

"This is not about excluding the Ten Commandments from the city of Frederick," Sullivan said yesterday. "There are innumerable places in the city where the Ten Commandments could be erected that would spark no constitutional concern at all."

Ten Commandments tablets started showing up in public places 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. It found its home in Memorial Park and was placed in its current location facing the street about four years ago.

The clamor over the tablets didn't begin until spring, when a high school senior named Blake Trettien wrote a letter to the city saying he thought the public religious display violated the separation between church and state.

That set off a citywide debate. The mayor received hundreds of e-mails and phone calls. The local Christian Coalition got involved. Elected officials were split.

"It's really snowballed," said Trettien, who soon will be a freshman at the Johns Hopkins University.

The city's aldermen thought they had come up with a solution this month.

They rededicated Memorial Park, where the tablets sit, as the Bentz Street Graveyard Memorial Ground and labeled it a historic cemetery instead of a public park, a move designed to highlight the park's history as a burial ground and making it, by extension, a more suitable spot for religious symbols.

Not only did that not satisfy the ACLU, it exacerbated the situation, Sullivan said.

"To the contrary, the resolution expressly recognized the presence of the Ten Commandments tablet as a `Judeo Christian Monument' in `an important public space,'" he wrote in the lawsuit.

At the same meeting, he pointed out, aldermen voted to begin their meetings with a prayer.

The suit was filed on behalf of two Frederick residents, Trettien and Francis A. Greene, 71, who lives a block from the monument. It was filed against both the city and the county, which co-own the park even though it lies within the city limits.

"Now that they've sued, I'm still not willing to move the monument," said Frederick County Commissioner John L. "Lennie" Thompson Jr.

"I'm willing to spend a reasonable amount of taxpayer money to defend this monument. The ACLU [has said]: `We are going to cost you a lot of money. We will run you a debt so big you'll have to give in.'"

"We want it based on the merits," he added.

Mayor Jennifer Dougherty said that although she hoped the rededication would have resolved the conflict, she wants to reach an agreement with the ACLU.

Meanwhile, she is focused on "more pressing matters that are facing city residents at this time" -- namely, a water shortage that is nearing crisis proportions.

Last month, she said: "We've been told by judges and lawyers -- if we fight this, we'll lose."

Many similar suits against posting the Ten Commandments in public places have ended with the monuments being removed, Sullivan said.

But Thompson, who is a lawyer, said cases regarding the Ten Commandments have hung on "hair-splitting" details -- such as whether the religious symbol was located inside or outside a government building -- and Frederick could win its case.

"It's one of those things headed for the Supreme Court -- no matter what side is the loser at trial, [it] will appeal," he said.

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