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A Georgia lawmaker says he intends to introduce a bill to require all of the state’s 159 county courthouses to display the Ten Commandments. Veteran state lawmaker J. Glenn Richardson disclosed his plans at a gathering of lawyers and journalists Jan. 31. One of the audience members was Georgia Chief Justice Norman Fletcher, who responded that he had concerns about the proposed bill’s constitutionality. “I don’t understand how the state Legislature can trump federal courts,” said Fletcher, referring to a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit that ordered the Alabama Supreme Court to remove a monument embossed with the Ten Commandments. But Richardson, a Republican who is minority leader in the Georgia House of Representatives, said he is undaunted by the potential cost of defending court challenges. If the state could pay several million dollars to defend its redistricting map, he said, then why not spend money to defend the Ten Commandments? Richardson’s proposal comes in the wake of a national controversy over former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore’s attempt to defend placing a 5,280-pound granite Ten Commandments monument in the rotunda of the Alabama Supreme Court. The 11th Circuit ordered the monument removed. Moore refused and was subsequently expelled from his post. Moore, who was in Atlanta last month with supporters at a Christian Coalition of Georgia event, is appealing his expulsion. In Georgia, the issue has played out in several county courthouses. The American Civil Liberties Union is already challenging a Ten Commandments display at a courthouse in Barrow County. Richardson’s proposal could be the next battle at the state Capitol over separation of church and state. ‘HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE’ Richardson, a Dallas, Ga., family and personal injury lawyer, spoke at the Georgia Bar Media Conference in Atlanta, an annual meeting of media organizations and the state bar. His comments came during a panel discussion about how to square religious speech and First Amendment rights with the establishment clause. Richardson � who, like all members of the Georgia Legislature, must stand for re-election in November � called separation of church and state “a fable.” Said Richardson: “The country has a historical perspective on religion, beginning with the Mayflower Compact. . . . The Ten Commandments form the basis for our deliberative processes.” Richardson said he’ll rely on assistance from L. Lynn Hogue, president of the Southeastern Legal Foundation and a professor at the Georgia State University College of Law, to write a bill that will pass muster constitutionally. Courts have sometimes allowed the display of the Ten Commandments in government buildings if the context is historical, rather than in support of religion. “The key to any constitutional posting of documents that reflect the religious background of American law has got to be context,” Hogue said in an interview a few days after the Jan. 31 event. Hogue said to get around a possible church-state conflict, he would draft the bill so that the Ten Commandments are part of a larger display with other legal documents, such as the Mayflower Compact, plus a connecting historical narrative. At the Jan. 31 bar event, panelist Wendell Bird of Atlanta’s Bird & Loechl noted that there is historic precedent for allowing the mixture of secular and religious symbols. Bird said that while Moore’s display was found unconstitutional, the court seal of Richmond County, which includes a representation of the Ten Commandments, was upheld because of its historic nature. But Fletcher, the chief justice, said he gets “concerned that people are misled and don’t understand what the federal courts have been saying. There’s a big difference between the Richmond County seal and the Ten Commandments,” he added. Richardson said that he’s confident a majority of the House will support his proposed bill, though he’s not sure he’ll be able to get it to the floor for a vote. He added that the idea came from his newly instituted Republican House Caucus Policy Council, and he expects to introduce the bill soon. Neil Kinkopf, a Georgia State University law professor and panelist at the Jan. 31 meeting, reminded the audience that Jews and Christians � and even Christian denominations � disagree over how to translate the Ten Commandments from the original Hebrew. It’s “not some monolithic thing,” Kinkopf said. “How do you display the Ten Commandments in a way that doesn’t take a theological position?” Kinkopf asked. Richardson said at the panel he had not heard that more than one translation of the Ten Commandments existed. But reached a few days later, he defended the King James Version of the document as the basis for the Mayflower Compact and English common law, which became the foundation of American law. “The translation most commonly designated as King James is the version that played the role in the history of the formation of this country,” Richardson said. He said by making this argument, he won’t “have to get into a discussion of which version is appropriate, because that one is historically important to the history of the United States.” David Hudson, an Augusta lawyer and general counsel for the Georgia Press Association, asked Richardson at the panel discussion why he doesn’t get each county to buy a billboard and post the Ten Commandments there, instead of “wasting” the Legislature’s time with the bill. Richardson responded with a smile, “We may very well do that.” He added that he doesn’t deem it a waste of time if citizens are asking for it. In an interview, Richardson added, “There has been, as everyone knows, an assault on our religious and historical freedoms by attempting to deny the role God played in the formation of our history as a nation. We should not shy away from it, but should make our history public and teach it.” He called the role the Ten Commandments played in the founding of this country a “fact.” Gerald Weber, legal director of the Georgia chapter of the ACLU, said the issue is clear to him. He said that while the ACLU hasn’t seen the bill, “it certainly rings of unconstitutionality.” A spokesman for Attorney General Thurbert Baker said the AG’s policy is not to comment on pending legislation. Rachel Tobin Ramos is a reporter at the Daily Report, an American Lawyer Media newspaper in Atlanta, where this article first appeared.

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