Opining on a monumental ruling

A Split On Commandments

June 28, 2005|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

CUMBERLAND - For Carol Cauley, the question of whether the ruddy granite Ten Commandments monument should stand outside the county courthouse here is simple, as simple as drawing a breath on a hot summer afternoon.

"Take a breath," she said. "You just proved God exists. God breathed life into man and gave him a soul."

And gave man the law, she said. And if we cannot see His law carved into stone, "How do we know what law is?"

People came and went yesterday on another day's court business, stepping along the walk, up and down the short flight of stairs a few paces from where the monument stands next to a bench in the shade of a small white birch. Word was going around that the Supreme Court was having something to say about Ten Commandments displays. News traveled in fragments.

People had heard that the court ruled the displays were constitutional in some circumstances, but not others.

Least clear of all was the question of how any of this would bear on the 5-foot-tall monument in Cumberland, placed in front of the Allegany County courthouse when it was donated by the Fraternal Order of Eagles in 1957.

County Commissioner Robert Hutcheson said the commission would withhold comment until the county attorney had reviewed the high court opinions, roughly 135 pages worth. "It's very, very complicated," he said.

Hutcheson and the other two commissioners know how touchy this business can be. Last October, they answered a citizen complaint about the monument by having the stone moved to a backyard across the street, out of sight. That brought a few dozen people to the courthouse in protest. Days later, the monument was moved back to where it stands now, some 16 paces to the right of the front entrance.

Cauley was at the October protest, along with Bill Taccino. Both were out there again yesterday to talk with a TV reporter and whoever else might happen by. Cauley brought the hand-lettered sign Taccino made for the October rally, the one that quotes Matthew: "Heaven and Earth shall pass away but my words shall not pass away."

Taccino had heard bits of the high court decisions, but he said he could not fathom the notion of "separation" of church and state if it meant separating the law from its fundamental source, represented here on the courthouse grounds.

"I believe the government is going to be separated from the church and the people. It's turning into a dictatorship," said Taccino, a former U.S. Postal Service worker. "I'm not a religious fanatic. It's obvious our country was founded on God."

This was less obvious to Jeffrey Davis, the emergency room physician whose complaint last August prompted the commissioners to move the stone. As Taccino and Cauley stood outside the courthouse yesterday, Davis showed up.

"To me, the people who want to keep the monuments are evangelical fundamentalists," said Davis. "They don't see the monuments as an endorsement of history, they see the monuments as an endorsement of their religious beliefs."

A completely secular government, he said, is "safer for everybody."

If the commissioners decide to keep the monument, Davis said he's not ruling out pursuing his complaint with the American Civil Liberties Union or some other organization. In the meantime, he has asked the commissioners to consider placing other monuments on the site, alongside the Ten Commandments, celebrating "the Constitution, secular government, separation of powers, human rights, all the good things about our country."

If nothing else, Davis, Taccino and Cauley shared a common passion about the monument. For those who do daily business in the courthouse, the stone carried little more emotional charge than any other part of the scenery here.

"I don't really care" where the monument stands, said lawyer John Coyle, who recalled that the stone was moved more than 20 years ago from the edge of the front walk to the slightly less conspicuous spot it now occupies.

Cumberland lawyer Carolyn Press said she's at the courthouse a lot, usually with much more on her mind than the Ten Commandments.

Asked if she considered the commandments a religious statement, she answered without hesitation: "Absolutely. If they weren't, nobody would have made a stink when they were moved."

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