Atheist sues to remove Ten Commandments monument from Allegany County courthouse grounds

Maryland atheist has filed lawsuit to have Ten Commandments monument removed from Allegany County Courthouse.

From the moment that Dr. Jeffrey Davis first saw the Allegany County Courthouse complex nearly 30 years ago, the monument to the Ten Commandments on the lawn has bothered him.

Davis, an emergency physician in neighboring Garrett County, had always been taught that the U.S. Constitution is a secular document. In his view, the 1,600-pound polished granite slab sends an inappropriately religious message.

"It offended me then, and it offends me now," the self-described secular humanist says in a tranquil voice.

Davis first raised objections to the monument in 2004 — and quickly drew a counter-protest. But just as 59 years of wind, rain, snow and sun have failed to erase the messages carved in the stone, torrents of criticism have done nothing to change his belief that the tribute's presence violates the law and should be remedied.

Davis returned to the spotlight in April, when he filed a federal lawsuit against Allegany County's three county commissioners over the matter.

Now that a national law firm hired by the county has filed a motion to have the case dismissed, Davis — who's serving as his own lawyer — has a month and a half to file a response. He says he's hard at work crafting it.

The courts have been inconsistent in their rulings on cases involving displays of the Ten Commandments. But Davis, 66, says he's in the fight to the end, even if it means taking it to the Supreme Court.

His views stand out in conservative Western Maryland, where more than 70 percent of respondents in an online survey say they want the monument left in place — and where Davis' opponents seem as determined and principled as he is.

Edward W. Taylor Jr., a local businessman, led the demonstration in support of retaining the monument 12 years ago.

Taylor, who describes himself as a 12th-generation Cumberland native, says the 5-foot tall slab has a religious purpose but not an explicitly Christian one. The founding fathers would have approved its presence, he argues, as they "clearly rooted American law in Judeo-Christian principles."

He says the commandments provide much-needed moral ballast during volatile times. In any case, he says, the courthouse setting itself is historic, and the monument has been standing there for so long that it's a part of local history.

Taylor stood beside the monument with three friends one recent afternoon.

"Dr. Davis has been garbling on about this for 12 years," he said. "To my knowledge, he's the only one who has ever objected. I think it's become an obsession with him. … There is absolutely no reason to take this down."

Jews and Christians believe God delivered the Ten Commandments to the Israelites on Mount Sinai. Their depiction on government land has long divided Americans.

In some ways, the debate is woven into the establishment clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution, in which the founders sought to ensure that no Church of England-style state religion would develop in the United States: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

Some interpret the words literally, as a ban on the establishment of a state religion. To others, it's an indication that the founders wanted government and religion to exist separately.

Courts have weighed multiple perspectives in Ten Commandments cases, citing in their rulings everything from physical surroundings to historical context.

The Supreme Court has generally found that any government action must have "a secular purpose."

But as if to underscore the ambiguity, even that body ruled on a single day — June 26, 2005 — that a monument similar to Cumberland's on the grounds of the Texas Capitol was constitutional, but framed images of the Ten Commandments on the walls of two Kentucky courthouses were not.

The Cumberland monument — which stands in a quiet corner some 20 yards away from the courthouse steps — has always contained elements to which either side could point.

It has its origins in mid-1950s Minnesota, where a judge named E.J. Reugemer persuaded his colleagues in the Fraternal Order of Eagles, a secular group focused on promoting patriotism, to create scores of Ten Commandments monuments and distribute them to municipalities around the country.

Historians say Reugemer believed their presence would discourage juvenile delinquency.

Two thousand miles southwest, the Hollywood mogul Cecil B. DeMille happened to be pondering ways to publicize his 1956 film, "The Ten Commandments," starring Charlton Heston.

DeMille, an outspoken Christian, learned of the Eagles project and had his studio, Paramount, cross-promote their effort.

Davis and like-minded people say that if the effort had no religious purpose, it would not have involved the Ten Commandments. Others say reducing juvenile delinquency is not an aim exclusive to Christians.

Either way, 180 of the monuments were distributed. One made its way to Allegany County, where it has stood near the courthouse since 1957.

Davis, a native of Washington, moved to Western Maryland in 1987. When he first noticed the monument, he says, it "disturbed" him. But because he knew the county to be a conservative place, and because he had three children in school, he decided to let the matter slide.

By 2003, however, the kids were grown, and questions about public displays of the Ten Commandments were in the news: Roy Moore, the chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, defied an order from a federal judge to remove a monument of the Decalogue from the Alabama Judicial Building.

"That's when I decided not to worry about what anybody else thinks — and to come out of the closet as an atheist," Davis says.

The following fall, he wrote a letter asking county commissioners to remove the slab. And they did: It was hauled to a backyard across the street.

But Taylor, the longtime president of the Cumberland Historic Cemetery Organization, helped lead a demonstration on the courthouse lawn the next day. Within three days, the commissioners had restored the monument, where it has stood since.

Faye Snow demonstrated with Taylor at the protest. She said her views haven't changed.

"I'm a Christian who loves the Lord and wants to follow in his direction," she said. "And the Ten Commandments is his direction."

The Rev. Michael Mudge, a Cumberland pastor, agreed. Every time Davis revives the issue, he said, he asks members of his flock to memorize the commandments and recite them — which he said most have done in recent weeks.

In 2005, Davis founded Citzens for a Secular Government, a nonprofit that proposed replacing the slab with one dedicated to the Constitution.

He has raised the issue periodically at public meetings and in letters to the editor.

He says he has received irate calls at home, sometimes late at night. Former colleagues have berated him. One person sent his wife, Susan, a condolence card for having married him.

"You have to have a thick skin to take on something like this," Davis says, and smiles wryly.

"I've gotten to where I really don't care what other people think. There's a principle involved."

He dropped the cause for a while due to a family issue, he said, but he returned to it this year, filing his suit April 29 in U.S. District Court.

Attorneys for Alliance Defending Freedom, the legal organization represening the county, filed the motion to dismiss last month. Their key argument: the 2005 Texas case, Van Orden v. Perry, is similar to Davis', and settled this area of the law.

Davis, who is semiretired and owns a rental property in Cumberland, disagrees on several grounds. He says he has spent hours at home crafting his counterargument and will file it soon.

He says he has tried to get the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Humanist Association, a Washington-based nonprofit, to back him, but that both have declined, citing other priorities.

The ACLU would not confirm that, and the American Humanist Association did not respond to a request for comment. But Robert V. Ritter, the association's former legal director, has tracked the story of the Eagles monuments for years and mapped their locations.

"Ideally, the ... monuments on public land will be moved to private property," he writes on his personal website. "This will permit persons of all faiths and nonbelief to enjoy our public lands."

As Davis sat on the bench next to the monument last week, he said he expects the court to rule for him but will appeal if necessary — and take the matter as far as he must.

But he considers the work daunting and said he's not above wanting at least a little support.

"Some people say I'm tilting at windmills, and maybe that's true," Davis said. "But Don Quixote could use a lawyer."

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

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