LOCAL PLAQUE FIGHT
Hamilton County wound up in a legal battle when it posted the Ten Commandments in the county courthouse shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The American Civil Liberties Union and county residents filed suit to have them removed, and a federal judge agreed in May 2002 that the plaques violated the constitutional separation of church and state. The judge ordered the commandments removed and ordered the county to pay the ACLU’s legal fees.
Source: Newspaper archives
A Meigs County woman who helped convince county commissioners to display the Ten Commandments in the courthouse said she is proud of local leaders for their decision.
“It’s putting God back where He deserves,” said 43-year-old Kim Duckett, a deputy county clerk. “The people want it.”
On Friday, the Meigs County Courthouse became home to a display of the Ten Commandments, the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence. Commissioners approved a resolution to post the display last month.
“We accepted the plaque and said that we’d hang it in our halls here at the courthouse,” County Mayor Garland Lankford said.
The moment was emotional for everyone present, Lankford said.
“When we accepted it the eyes got pretty wet, including mine,” he said.
There were no tears among officials with the Americans United for Separation of Church and State, however.
The Washington, D.C.-based organization’s senior policy analyst, Rob Boston, said he applauds the display of the Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence and noted he’d add the Constitution, too.
“The Ten Commandments is the odd document out in that collection,” he said.
“It’s mostly religious and, unlike the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights and Constitution, the Ten Commandments isn’t part of the basis of our government.
“There are a lot of people who disagree with that,” he admitted.
Still, Boston said, the fact that most of the people in a community want to post a religious document in a government building doesn’t make it the right thing to do.
“The majority does not always rule simply because it’s a majority. What the majority wants must align with the Constitution. If this display is unconstitutional, then it won’t matter if the majority wants it, it will still have to be taken down,” he said.
Lankford said he doesn’t anticipate a legal challenge but admits it’s a possibility.
“There was not a single opponent at last night’s meeting,” he said. “Our people will be devastated if somebody challenges those being posted on the wall of this courthouse.”
Lankford said Duckett and other supporters asked commissioners last month to pass a resolution for the display. They were accompanied by Rhea County resident June Griffin, who has spearheaded similar efforts across the state.
The group submitted a petition with 1,800 signatures, he said. Meigs County’s population is 11,753.
On Thursday night, the group returned with the documents framed and ready to display, he said.
“They said it was a gift to Meigs County,” he said. “Our people overwhelmingly support it. I would think this Bible Belt community is near 100 percent for it, if not 100 percent,” he said.
He said if the U.S. Supreme Court building can sport the religious document, why not the Meigs County Courthouse?
Griffin, who has campaigned for the Commandments to be publicly posted across the state since 1997, said she tallies the Meigs County decision as a victory.
“We the people of Tennessee have spoken through our county commissions that we have a right within the county jurisdiction or the state’s jurisdiction to execute the will of the people,” she said.
Ben Benton is a news reporter at the Chattanooga Times Free Press. He covers Southeast Tennessee and previously covered North Georgia education. Ben has worked at the Times Free Press since November 2005, first covering Bledsoe and Sequatchie counties and later adding Marion, Grundy and other counties in the northern and western edges of the region to his coverage. He was born and raised in Cleveland, Tenn., a graduate of Bradley Central High School. Benton ...