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Allegheny County Courthouse can keep Ten Commandments posted

Tuesday, July 29, 2003

By Torsten Ove, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The Ten Commandments will stay on the outside wall of the Allegheny County Courthouse, a federal judge ruled yesterday.

Citing a decision in June by the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in a similar case in Chester County, Chief U.S. District Judge Donetta Ambrose said a plaque on the courthouse listing the commandments does not violate the Constitution.

The judge's ruling means the case is over and the plaque stays where it is, attached to the wall on the Fifth Avenue side of the courthouse.

"Based on the cumulative knowledge of the reasonable observer, I find that he or she could not conclude that continued display of the Ten Commandments plaque reflects an intent by the current county officials to promote or favor one religion over another or, indeed, even to promote religion over non-religion," the judge wrote in a 48-page opinion.

The decision was based in part on a ruling by the appellate court that said Chester County, outside Philadelphia, can keep a Ten Commandments plaque on the facade of its courthouse. It ruled that the plaque does not constitute an official endorsement of religion and may remain on the Chester County Courthouse for the sake of historic preservation.

Perry Napolitano, a Downtown lawyer who represented Allegheny County on a pro bono basis, said he couldn't comment on Ambrose's decision because he hadn't yet seen it.

Robert Boston of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the Washington, D.C., organization that represented two local atheists in the Allegheny County case, said the group's legal team will examine the ruling and may appeal.

He said it wasn't unexpected in light of the Chester County case.

"Obviously when that came down we knew that it would have an impact on the case in Allegheny County," he said.

Americans United represented plaintiffs Andy Modrovich, of West Mifflin, and James Moore, of Squirrel Hill, who said they were "affronted and deeply offended" by the plaque.

Their lawsuit to force its removal on the grounds that it violates the constitutional separation of church and state had been on hold for more than a year while the parties waited for a ruling in the Chester County case.

The 3rd Circuit said a reasonable person familiar with the Chester County plaque's history would regard the decision to leave it in place as religiously neutral, rather than evangelical.

The court's ruling overturned a March 2002 lower court decision that the plaque was inherently a religious statement and must be taken down.

Allegheny County argued to keep its plaque in place in the interest of historic preservation. The 50-by-80 inch plaque was mounted in 1918 by the long-since-defunct International Reform Bureau, an organization that was campaigning to infuse religious principles into public life and law.

Both the Allegheny and Chester county plaques display a form of the Ten Commandments taken from the King James version of the Bible.

Americans United had argued, however, that the Allegheny County plaque was different in that it is featured more prominently than the Chester County plaque.

In her decision, Ambrose disagreed.

She said the Allegheny County plaque is one of 20 similar displays given to the county over the last 100 years and looks like the others.

Torsten Ove can be reached at tove@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2620.

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