DAYTON, Tenn. - Rhea County, Tennessee, resident June Griffin, who crisscrossed the state 20 years ago urging officials in all 95 counties to pass resolutions allowing them to post the Ten Commandments in county courthouses, says she has renewed interest from Tennessee sheriffs in a similar effort.
Over the past two decades, including a recent boom of about 20 requests, 59 of the state's 95 sheriff's offices now have received one of her displays, which she calls "The Keys to Americanism." Each one contains copies of the Ten Commandments, the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, said Griffin, an 83-year-old conservative political activist, constitutionalist and minister.
This latest effort, she said, is an outgrowth of work she started in 1997 to restore the right to post the Ten Commandments in Tennessee county courthouses. In 2002, then-Tennessee Attorney General Paul Summers issued an opinion that a display of the Ten Commandments in courthouses violated the U.S. Constitution's Establishment Clause regarding the separation of church and state.
Griffin said 88 of 95 counties at that time adopted resolutions anyway, allowing county officials to post the Ten Commandments if they wanted.
Now, the three-document displays she started having made around 2003 for sheriffs are drawing more requests, Griffin said Friday at her home in Dayton.
"This year there's been a second surge," Griffin said. "We now have 59 sheriffs who have asked for these. They have asked for them; I never recruit."
Griffin, a member of the Tennessee Sheriffs' Association, said the displays are gifts to the sheriff's office, not the sheriff specifically. They are intended to remain in the office from one administration to the next, she said.
"It is important to remember that this entire project represents the will of the people," she said. "It is time to end the oppression."
Griffin said sheriffs in the Chattanooga region over the years all have requested one of her displays - with the exception of Franklin, Marion, McMinn and Meigs counties. Griffin described them as high-quality displays and said she has them made as she gets requests. She pays for them herself.
The four area sheriff's offices are among 36 counties that have not requested one of the displays. The others are Anderson, Blount, Chester, DeKalb, Gibson, Hardeman, Hawkins, Haywood, Henderson, Houston, Humphreys, Johnson, Lake, Lawrence, Lincoln, Loudon, Macon, Madison, Overton, Perry, Scott, Sevier, Shelby, Smith, Sumner, Trousdale, Unicoi, Union, Van Buren, Warren, Washington and Weakley counties, according to Griffin.
Rhea County Sheriff Mike Neal was the first to ask for one of the displays years back, she said. Griffin doesn't keep up with dates of requests but said the recent surge added 20 requests - and counting - to the original 39 requests she received after launching the effort around 2003.
One of the most recent requests came from Hamilton County sheriff-elect Austin Garrett, Griffin said.
Tennessee's newly elected sheriffs are heading this week to Nashville for training. Garrett couldn't be reached Friday for comment.
Meanwhile, the sheriffs in Marion, McMinn, Meigs and Franklin counties have no displays for different reasons, but not because they didn't want one.
"I have nothing against her efforts," Franklin County Sheriff Tim Fuller said.
He said he doesn't reject the idea; he just followed the County Commission's lead. Franklin was one of the few counties tabling Griffin's Ten Commandment-related resolution back around 2002.
"I have no problem with it," Fuller said Thursday in a phone interview. "I know she approached our County Commission back then (about the resolutions allowing the right to post the Ten Commandments), and they chose not to do that."
He also noted Griffin doesn't solicit requests from sheriffs.
"I've never asked. No particular reason; I just haven't asked for it," Fuller said.
He said since the commission didn't take action on the Ten Commandments proposal, he never acted to get a display.
Longtime Marion County Sheriff Ronnie "Bo" Burnett said he had never heard of Griffin's displays.
"I would like to have one," Burnett said Friday in a phone interview. "I might have to ask the county attorney about it, but if nothing else, I can put it back away from the public view."
Burnett said he hoped to get in touch with Griffin soon.
The separation of church and state can be found in the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution, which states, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."
The phrase "a wall of separation between church and state" to explain the scope and effect of the clause was coined by Thomas Jefferson in 1802 and written into a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1879. The Supreme Court has more recently taken a different view.
As Griffin's displays gain popularity, recent rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court have tended to favor religious exercise in government, including a Maine ruling favoring state funding of religious schools and a Washingon state ruling siding with a high school football coach who sought to pray on the 50-yard line after games.
Griffin said the court's recent actions are a good sign the Bill of Rights is returning to its proper place.
"In the first place, the Bill of Rights comes under the heading of 'res judicata' (a matter decided). That means it's already been tried and it cannot come up in another court," Griffin said. "And because these people have ignored it, and the law schools have not taught it, the Bill of Rights never went away. The lawyers just didn't know how to argue it."
Griffin feels her displays for sheriffs and her Ten Commandment resolution effort are both protected by the Bill of Rights.
"The bottom line is it is natural law built on the moral code," she said.
"The Bible - the reason that it's so established, the reason George Washington kissed the Bible - was the Bible is the only book that will give you the Bill of Rights. No other religious book grants the Bill of Rights," she said. "That's why this nation is so blessed because the Bill of Rights locks right into the Ten Commandments."
The Bill of Rights preserves the U.S. Constitution and it's been ignored for too long, she said.
She blames lawyers.
"Look at what we've come to without the Bill of Rights - we have come to endless lawsuits, endless additions to titles and codes and statutes. Endless, until now a new copy of the Constitution weighs 10 pounds," she said.
A LOOK AHEAD
Even in her eighth decade, Griffin's work's not done.
"I expect to have all the counties before I go to heaven," she said of her display distribution effort. "I rededicated myself to do this work after my husband passed away" in 2020.
Griffin sometimes ponders why she took up the battles she's fought during her life, but she knows the answer, she said.
It's a calling from a higher power.
"I feel like I owe the Lord my life and my resources because he has been so good to me as an American woman," Griffin said. "There are missionaries who go all over the world to give women the privileges that I have. I am very grateful to be an American woman."