Americans United for Separation of Church and State today filed a lawsuit in federal court charging that the city of Frederick, Md., acted unlawfully when it sold a Ten Commandments monument and the land beneath it in a public park to a private organization.
The sale, Americans United contends, was a sham designed to keep the religious monument displayed in a city-owned park.
Last August, the Frederick Board of Aldermen voted to sell the sliver of land that contains the monument to a private group. Although a bid of $18,000 was received, the city sold the land to the Fraternal Order of Eagles, which had bid only $6,700 for the property. The city also put numerous conditions on the sale of the land, including a requirement that public access to the spot be maintained.
"This sale was clearly a ruse employed by the city of Frederick to keep the Ten Commandments in a public park," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "We believe this display clearly violates the separation of church and state."
The Ten Commandments marker sits in Memorial Park (now called "Bentz Street Graveyard Memorial Ground"). The five-foot-tall granite Ten Commandments marker was donated to the city in 1958 by the Fraternal Order of Eagles.
The monument was originally displayed before the Frederick City Hall but was later moved to the park. It lists the commandments in an order used by Protestant groups, although it breaks the tenth into two, thus technically listing eleven commandments.
"Government should not be in the business of displaying religious symbols," said Americans United Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan. "It sends the message that the government has a favored religion and that those who do not share it are second-class citizens."
Americans United filed the Chambers v. City of Frederick case on behalf of Roy Chambers, a Frederick resident who opposes the display of a religious symbol in a public park. The lawsuit is pending in the U.S. District Court, District of Maryland, Southern Division.
The legal action asserts that the sale is illegal but points out that even if it were deemed valid, display of the monument is still unconstitutional.
"[A] reasonable observer would not know that the Ten Commandments Monument does not sit on public land," reads the complaint. "No sign conveys this fact, and no division designates where public land ends and private land begins. Moreover, both the Ten Commandments Monument and the monument listing the names of those buried in the park indicate that the land is public property. The Monument itself continues to recite that it was 'presented to the City of Frederick by Frederick Aerie No. 1067 Fraternal Order of Eagles.' In short, the City of Frederick and Mayor [Jennifer] Dougherty failed to dispose of the Monument in a manner that would avoid the unlawful continued appearance of City endorsement of religion."
Observed AU's Lynn, "Religious symbols belong in houses of worship, not public parks. "
Americans United for Separation of Church and State is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.
Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.