The battle over the separation of church and state has been alive and well in Mountain City, Tennessee. After years of debate, a local man named Ralph Stewart has come to a settlement with local officials after charging that the Johnson County courthouse has been promoting Christianity and violating the U.S. Constitution with its Ten Commandments display.
Stewart took particular issue with the display of a Ten Commandments plaque that hangs in the courthouse's lobby. The display is a part of an exhibition that has been put together to showcase the history of American law. The plaque reads, "The Historical Foundation of American Law, Moral Values, and Code of Conduct."
While Stewart originally wanted it removed from the courthouse, he has, instead, come to an agreement, thus ending his lawsuit against Johnson County. As part of the arrangement, the county has agreed to also post a display that the man created to explain the importance of church-state separation. This messages present on his posters claim that the Ten Commandments are not the foundation of American law and that church and state must remain separated.
In addition to this inclusion, the local government will also pay $75,000 to Americans United for Separation of Church and State, for fees incurred during the legal battle. A $1 payment will also be allocated to Stewart -- clearly a symbolic sum to illustrate his victory.
Americans United explains the other changes that will take place as a result of the agreement:
Under the terms of the settlement, displays will be limited to the lobby and hallways in the lower level of the courthouse. Displays must relate to American or Tennessee law or Johnson County history and must meet certain aesthetic requirements.
The county is forbidden to reject a display simply because commissioners don’t like the content. If the county purports to reject a display for aesthetic reasons, the county must provided a detailed, written explanation and propose an alternative design that would be acceptable.
In addition, officials also agreed to put a disclaimer in the courthouse that makes it clear that the displays are sponsored by private citizens, not the county.
Now that the case has come to an end, the man at the center of it says he hopes that it will dissuade other counties from displaying Christian texts on government property. "The concept that government should not be promoting a religion is such a really cool idea that we came up with, and they just don't seem to grasp that," Stewart said, referring to local political leaders.
Stewart's battle with the county dates back to 2008, when he first complained about the presence of the plaque. Initially, the county created a public forum area and incorporated the plaque into it in an attempt to stem the man's criticism. In addition to the Ten Commandments, other quotes from the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were included.
Stewart also wanted his display to be a part of the new forum, but it was declined. Now, this has apparently been rectified.
(H/T: The Republic via AP)