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The Free Thought Society promotes the separation of church and state and its Philadelphia division, along with member Sally Flynn, filed suit Tuesday against Chester County, Pa., and its county commissioners, seeking to remove a plaque of the Ten Commandments from the courthouse. The suit, filed by Stefan Presser, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, alleges that the plaque violates the separation of church and state protected by the First Amendment by promoting religion at a government center. The county’s administrative and executive offices are also at the courthouse. In their official capacity, County Commissioners Colin A. Hanne, Karen L. Martynick and Andrew E. Dinniman have been named defendants in the suit. The suit follows an Aug. 20 letter sent by Presser to the county and its commissioners, asking that the plaque be removed. The letter cited the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ 2000 decision that ordered Elkhart, Ind., to remove a 40-year-old public display of the Ten Commandments because it violated the First Amendment. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the decision in May. According to Presser, the letter said that if the plaque was not removed, he would take the issue to a different forum. The county denied the request in a letter signed by the commissioners on Aug. 23. John S. Halsted, Chester County solicitor and managing partner at Gawthrop Greenwood, did not return phone calls by deadline Tuesday. The plaque was placed at the main entrance of the county courthouse in 1920 by the Council of Religious Education of the Federated Churches, which petitioned the county board for the 50-by-60-inch tablet. The council was created to “strengthen and promote the dissemination of Christianity,” according to the suit. The plaque was dedicated on Dec. 11, 1920, and, according to the program, the Rev. J. Dickerson gave the invocation and the Rev. Charles A. Walker gave the benediction. “Before Jehovah’s Awful Throne,” was the hymn, and those in attendance “dedicated to God this tablet of the Ten Commandments.” “Through its continued display of the tablet, Chester County created the appearance to a reasonable observer that the government is taking a position on questions of religious belief rather than maintaining a position of government neutrality toward religion,” the suit says. “In addition to constituting a government preference for religion over non-religion, the display of the plaque constitutes a government preference for certain specific religious tenets and modes of worship — in particular, Protestantism — over other religious tenets and modes of worship.” The Ten Commandments on the tablet are from the King James version of the Bible, typically associated with Protestants and different from Catholic and Jewish editions, according to the suit. Flynn has made a conscious effort not to enter through the main doorway to which the plaque is adjacent because the tablet symbolizes the county’s endorsement of a religion to which she does not subscribe, the complaint says. Since the commissioners refused to remove the plaque, they have made public statements regarding immense support for keeping the plaque in its present location. The plaque has become a contentious subject in the county. “One of the things the commissioners have said is that they have had overwhelming support to maintain the plaque,” Presser said Tuesday. “But the Bill of Rights is designed specifically so the majority doesn’t always get to rule. If there is one person who is hurt by it, then the Bill of Rights is designed to protect that one person.” Editorials to Chester County’s daily paper, The Daily Local News, concerning the plaque have surged, particularly in the wake of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11. Some have called the commissioners’ decision to keep the plaque at the courthouse “patriotic.” Presser said residents should take a step back and consider how they would feel if the plaque supported someone else’s religion instead of their own. The suit asks for temporary and permanent injunctive relief from maintenance of the plaque at the courthouse or any other county property. The suit also seeks plaintiffs’ costs and fees and proper relief. The Free Thought Society also sought to have the plaque removed in 1997, but the member who sought the removal moved from the area.

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