The Progressive


A project of Common Dreams

For Immediate Release

Joe Conn, Rob Boston or Sandhya Bathija
202.466.2587 fax

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


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.

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.

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."

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.)

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.