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Clearfield County commissioners spurn bid to remove 10 Commandments courthouse marker

Wednesday, August 21, 2002

By Tom Gibb, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

CLEARFIELD, Pa. -- The agenda for the Clearfield County commissioners' biweekly meeting carried a demand from an organization of area atheists to clear the courthouse steps of a 30-year-old marker bearing the Ten Commandments.

It doesn't take a pollster to know which way the wind blows, not on a day like yesterday.

More than 300 people squeezed into the county's main courtroom. Some sported T-shirts emblazoned with the Stars and Stripes, some wore crosses, some had clerical collars. And when the assembly opened with the Pledge of Allegiance, the crowd fairly shouted the phrase "under God."

When it all was over three hours later -- after the last of 74 people spoke his piece -- the three commissioners agreed that despite threats of a lawsuit, the Commandments will stay.

"Yes, we want government to stay out of religion and we want religion to stay out of government," John Sughrue, local lawyer and chairman of the county commissioners, said in a preface to his vote. "However, this doesn't mean that every government building or function has to be sanitized of all symbols or expressions of our culture."

"You're the majority now," Lorie Polansky, Western Pennsylvania director for American Atheists Inc., warned the sea of faces around her. "But what do you do when it's 55 percent Muslim and you're told you'd better, by God, be bowing to Mecca five times a day or you're going to hell? How are you going to feel?"

"We want the government to be neutral," Greg Swales, a local member of American Atheists, insisted. "If any of you guys had an ounce of faith, you wouldn't even think of using government to convert the people."

After warning that "litigation will be very expensive," Ron Stauffer, president of the Altoona-based Keystone Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said he doesn't know if the ACLU will launch a court fight to remove the marker.

Sughrue, though, guessed that all sides will sit back and watch the outcome of a challenge to a Ten Commandments plaque at the Chester County Courthouse in suburban Philadelphia. There, in March, a federal judge ruled that the display was unconstitutional. But the county is challenging the ruling before the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals while the plaque, by judicial order, hangs covered, pending a decision.

"There's room for disagreement," area resident Santa Stryker told the Clearfield crowd. "Let us reason together, like the Bible says."

The tablet -- marble, the size of a bunk-bed mattress -- hasn't drawn this much attention since it was donated by the local Fraternal Order of Eagles in 1972 and set into the front steps, right under 142-year-old brick courthouse's clock tower.

Then came Polansky, an Altoonan, who has led other skirmishes in the area when she judged religion to be encroaching on government.

In a letter last month to commissioners, she demanded that the tablet be removed, saying that in 10 counties she visits in her job, no others "force-feed piety to the public."

The Ohio-Kentucky-Allegheny Regional Office of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai Brith followed up last week with a letter to commissioners, opining that "the display in question is unconstitutional."

The challenges were fighting words to this generally conservative county of 83,400 people. Defenders of the marker called rallies, circulated petitions and then turned out yesterday to swamp the meeting in comment.

"I got furious," retired Marine Lyle Fowler told the throng.

Retiree Bud Mellott, using a portable oxygen pack to help him breathe, was so adamant about defending the marker that he waited his turn to talk yesterday even after reporting, "I'm about out of oxygen."

"I told my lawyer friends that they might have to raise bail for me," Janice Loomis told the crowd. "Because if they go to take those [Commandments] away, I'll be sitting on top of them."

Ed Hooven introduced himself as a former prison inmate who, since his release, credited the Commandments with helping to "keep me walking right."

"Let's look at it as a historical monument," local eighth-grade teacher Judi Bookhamer said. " ... I can't see history being offensive."

Stauffer said he doesn't consider the Commandments offensive -- just woefully out of place at the courthouse.

"You have 40 or 50 churches," he told the group. "Why do we need a church on courthouse property?"

By Dennis Howell's reckoning, though, it's a fait accompli, the marker is staying.

"Life's a battle of good and evil," he announced. "If you look in the back of the Bible, we win."

Tom Gibb can be reached at tgibb@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1601.

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