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Americans United Files Lawsuit Challenging Tennessee County’s Unconstitutional Preference for Christianity
Johnson County Commission Allowed Posting of Ten Commandments, But Turned Down Local Man’s Church‑State Display, Watchdog Group Charges
WASHINGTON - January 13 - A Tennessee county's preference for Christianity in its courthouse displays violates the U.S. Constitution, according to a federal lawsuit filed today by Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
Americans United, a Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group, is challenging the Johnson County Commission's decision to display the Ten Commandments and Christian literature in the courthouse lobby while refusing to display a local man's posters about the historic role of church-state separation in American law.
"The Johnson County Commission is promoting religion through its displays," observes the complaint. "In addition, the Commission refuses to allow alternative points of view to be heard. This is a twofold violation of the First Amendment."
AU's legal complaint notes that in 2008, after county resident Ralph Stewart challenged the county's display of the Ten Commandments, the Johnson County Commission adopted a policy which created a public forum for displays on the walls of the county courthouse lobby. Displays are allowed so long as they directly relate to the development of the history or heritage of the law.
After the adoption of the new policy, the Commission unanimously approved a display sponsored by the Rotary Club of Mountain City and the Ten Commandments Warriors that features the Ten Commandments alongside excerpts from the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, U.S. Supreme Court decisions and the nation's founders.
The display itself claims that the Ten Commandments are the historical foundation of American law. Accompanying it is a pamphlet written by local clergy that contends U.S. law springs from biblical morality and insists that the United States was founded on Christian principles.
The Commission, however, rejected two posters proposed by Stewart that explain the legal heritage of church‑state separation and refute the notion that the Ten Commandments are the historical foundation of American law. His posters featured quotes from the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, U.S. Supreme Court decisions, and the nation's founders, including Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.
In rejecting Stewart's display, the Johnson County Commission insisted that it does not fall within the subject matter of the public forum its policy creates - even though Stewart's material draws on many of the same historical sources as one of the Ten Commandments displays.
In a lawsuit filed on Stewart's behalf with the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee at Greeneville, Americans United contends that the Commission is engaging in impermissible content‑based and viewpoint‑based discrimination in violation of the First Amendment.
The complaint also charges that the Commission's actions were undertaken with a religious purpose, have a predominantly religious effect, endorse religion and prefer religion over non‑religion.
In its complaint, Americans United asks that the court order the Commission to display Stewart's posters or close the public forum and remove the Ten Commandments and other items approved under the policy.
AU Litigation Counsel Gregory M. Lipper is overseeing the Stewart v. Johnson County lawsuit, along with AU Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan and AU Madison Fellow Hellen Papavizas. D. Bruce Shine, an attorney in Kingsport, Tenn., is serving as local counsel in the case.
Plaintiff Stewart has five years of military service in the Marines as a commissioned reserve officer. (Stewart's statement about the case may be read here.)