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Ten Commandments monument raises civil liberty concerns in Wyoming County

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A group of people did not seek permission before installing a monument of the Ten Commandments on the Wyoming County Courthouse lawn in Pineville this week, County Commission President Jason Mullins said, but he doesn't see a problem with it because it's meant to inspire others and isn't paid for with tax dollars.

"Our forefathers were adamant about the separation of church and state," he said, "but I don't think they ever intended for the elimination of church from state."

The monument raises constitutional concerns about discrimination against atheists and religious minorities, said Sarah Rogers, staff attorney for the West Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. Rogers said she would be looking into the matter.

A group of churches and business leaders raised money and erected the monument outside but in front of the courthouse on Monday, Mullins said. The group did not ask for the commission's permission before building it. When commissioners saw them building it, they didn't object, he said.

In the future, he said, all groups must go through the commission before building anymore monuments on courthouse property.

Mullins said the monument could offend people but he doesn't understand why. He described himself as religious and said the Ten Commandments are "historical documents."

"It happened. It's real," he said. "It's information that is as much fact as any current history books."

The monument contains a message advising that the Ten Commandants are "to be used as a historical reference and model to enrich the knowledge of our citizens to an early origin of law."

The monument also reads that the Ten Commandments are: "the laws of GOD for all men. They are anointed by GOD JEHOVA as a promise of everlasting life ... . Read these words of GOD, but do not hide, destroy, or remove them from the people he loves."

Mullins said the group that installed the monument did not intend to force religion on anybody but wanted to inspire others and address the county's drug problem.

Prescription drug abuse in Oceana, also in Wyoming County, is the focus of a new documentary film, "Oxyana," that prompted a town hall meeting last month and riled residents. However, the film also has opened eyes to a prescription drug problem that plagues not just Oceana but much of Southern West Virginia.

Rogers said the monument is using government property to advocate one religion over another.

"We advocate that these are religious beliefs that should be left to each individual person to make," she said.

Previously, the state ACLU has sent letters to a school and a courthouse that had displayed the Ten Commandments, she said. In those cases, the Ten Commandments were promptly removed.

"Pro-religious monuments on the grounds of courthouses sends a message to minorities of faith or nonbelievers that they are second-class citizens," she said. "It undermines civil liberties."

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that a 40-year-old monument of the Ten Commandments on a Texas courthouse lawn did not violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment because the monument itself has historical value. However, Rogers said, the court has ruled less favorably on newer monuments because they are viewed as clear endorsements of religion.

Reach Travis Crum at travis.crum@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5163.

 


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