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Man Sues Tenn. County Over Ten Commandments Display

A Johnson County man is suing the local government after officials rejected his proposal for a display on the separation of church and state in the courthouse's "public forum" area.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- A Johnson County man is suing the local government after officials rejected his proposal for a display on the separation of church and state in the courthouse's "public forum" area.

Ralph Stewart claims in a federal lawsuit that his county illegally promotes Christianity because it allows an approximately 3-foot-by-3-foot plaque of the Ten Commandments to hang in the courthouse lobby as part of a display on the history of American law.

Stewart's display consists of two posters titled "On the Legal History of the Separation of Church and State" and "The Ten Commandments Are Not the Foundation of American Law." The latter contains the statement, "The primary source of American law is the common and statuary law of England, NOT the Bible and NOT Christianity."

The county commission rejected Stewart's proposed display in June after consulting with the Alliance Defense Fund, a law firm dedicated to Christian advocacy.

At that meeting, Planning Commissioner Mike Tavalario said, "This is a good Christian community that welcomes people who move here. But if you want to attack God, you should leave."

Tavalario also volunteered to chair a committee to raise money for a legal fund.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed suit on Stewart's behalf on Thursday in U.S. District Court in Greeneville, claiming First Amendment violations.

According to the suit, the county originally displayed a single plaque in the courthouse. It contained the Ten Commandments and the words "The Historical Foundation of American Law, Moral Values, and Code of Conduct" and was on display from 1999 through the fall or winter of 2008.

Stewart, through his attorney, complained that the plaque violated the separation of church and state in an August 2008 letter to the county.

In response, according to court documents, then-Johnson County Mayor Dick Grayson contacted Christian attorneys at the Alliance Defense Fund, which recommended the county could keep its Ten Commandments display by making it part of a public forum to commemorate the history of American law.

The commission adopted a proposal to establish a public forum in the courthouse at its October meeting.

One of the residents speaking at that meeting was Scott Teague, who founded a group called the Ten Commandments Warriors in response to Stewart's complaint. Teague told the commission this group was "'tired of being pushed around by a bunch of ungodly people,"' according to the suit.

The Ten Commandments Warriors produced a new courthouse display that incorporates the old Ten Commandments plaque as well as new plaques with quotes from the U.S. Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and the founding fathers.

Secured near the plaques is a pamphlet titled "Johnson County Historical Display" that contains essays from local preachers and the statement "'the United States of America was founded on Christian principles."'

Stewart brought his display proposal to a May 2010 commission meeting. It includes a poster that states, "America's seminal documents do not even mention the Bible, Christianity, or the Ten Commandments."

Stewart's posters, like the plaques, include quotes from the U.S. Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and the founding fathers.

"Mr. Stewart's display covers the same subject-matter -- and quotes from many of the same sources -- as does the Second Ten Commandments display," the suit states. "The only material difference is the viewpoint expressed."

The commission again consulted the Alliance Defense Fund and rejected Stewart's submission at its June meeting, with Grayson stating the display did not meet the requirements of the public forum.

The suit claims the county's stated reason for rejecting Stewart's display, "that Plaintiff's history-grounded display was insufficiently 'historical' -- thinly disguises the County's true motivation and the effects of its actions: to decorate the Courthouse with displays that promote Christianity, and to exclude displays that promote the separation of church and state."

The suit claims the county is in violation of the First Amendment and asks the court to either allow Stewart's display or close the public forum at the courthouse and remove all displays.

County attorney Bill Cockett had no comment on the suit.

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