Candidate wants to post Ten Commandments in Hamilton County Courthouse

Candidate wants to post Ten Commandments in Hamilton County Courthouse

March 8th, 2014 by Louie Brogdon in Local Regional News

POLL: Should the Ten Commandments be displayed in government buildings?

The Hamilton County Courthouse.

Photo by Jake Daniels/Times Free Press.

Nearly 12 years after a federal judge forced Hamilton County commissioners to remove the Ten Commandments from three public buildings, a candidate for a Circuit Court judgeship is asking commissioners to put them back up.

But this time, she's asking that they be shown in a more academic light.

Catherine Cate White is seeking the Republican nomination for Hamilton County Circuit Court Judge Division 1, along with candidate J.B. Bennett.

On Friday, she sent a letter to commissioners and Mayor Jim Coppinger asking them to consider a resolution to display a collection of historic documents including the Magna Carta, "The Star-Spangled Banner," the national motto, the Ten Commandments and others at the courthouse.

White wants to donate the documents, and on March 19 she hopes to ask commissioners in person at a commission meeting.

Shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the commission voted to hang three plaques displaying the Ten Commandments in the county's courthouse, courts building and juvenile center.

In 2002, a federal judge ordered the plaques removed after the American Civil Liberties Union and several residents sued the county for blurring the separation of church and state. The suit resulted in nearly $70,000 in legal fees to the county, which were paid by private donors and money raised by an auction of the three original plaques.

Commission Chairman Fred Skillern, who was on the commission during the first Ten Commandments debacle, said he would not be the one to place White's resolution on an agenda because candidates should not use public meetings to campaign.

"As long as I am chairman, I'm going to do my utmost to keep politics out of the commission meetings," Skillern said.

Further, he said anything like it would need to be "vetted thoroughly by legal."

"This is a legal matter that we've already lost once, and I would think we would need thoroughly vet it on the legal standpoint before we ever considered it, because of the potential cost to taxpayers," he said.

Any commissioner or Coppinger can have an item placed on an agenda.

But Coppinger said he typically brings resolutions recommended by staff for doing county business.

"Typically, this kind of item would come from [the commission]," he said.

White said Friday she isn't proposing the resolution as a campaign move per se, but she wanted to use the campaign to see it through.

"I want to do this because I think it's important. I am interested in doing this right now, while people do care what I have to say, since I'm a candidate," White said.

She added that this may be her last shot.

"And if I win the primary and the election, at that time, it wouldn't be appropriate for me to bring it up, as a sitting judge," she said.

This is also not a new idea for White.

After the first lawsuit, White came to the commission in July 2002 seeking the same historical display. Case law then supported her position that as long as the Ten Commandments are displayed in a historic contexts with other documents, there was no violation.

Now, there is state law behind her.

The Tennessee General Assembly passed a law in 2012 to allow county governments to "display historic documents on public buildings and grounds." The law specifically names documents such as the Mayflower Compact, the Bill of Rights and the Ten Commandments.

"They are all on the same kind of paper, the same kind of ink. We couldn't put them up and put a spotlight on any one," White said. "The idea is these are all historical documents and we are not trying to promote one over the other."

Representatives with the Tennessee ACLU did not return phone calls or emails Friday seeking comment.

District 7 Commissioner Larry Henry, who joined the commission in the midst of the 2002 lawsuit, said he hadn't seen the letter yet Friday. But he said he remembers the controversy from a decade ago.

"We're just going to have to look at it and have some discussion on it. Of course, the Ten Commandments, I've been to the U.S. Supreme Court in D.C., they are posted there," Henry said.

Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at lbrogdon@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6481.