First Amendment Feud

An East Tennessee Man Tangles With Local Officials – And The ‘Ten Commandments Warriors’ – To Defend Church-State Separation

In 1998, Ralph Stewart left Illinois, retired from his career as an airline pilot and purchased 150 acres of land in the mountains of east Tennessee, where he planned to enjoy his golden years taking in the beautiful scenery.

Stewart was aware that his beliefs about religion differed from those of most of his new neighbors, and he didn’t plan on bringing up the subject. A long-time supporter of the Humane Society, Stewart was content to keep to himself and care for dozens of rescued animals.

But after 10 years in Johnson County, Stewart began to think that keeping quiet isn’t always right. 

“If you are a member of any group, be it your family, your community or your government,” he told Church & State, “and that group is involved in conduct that is detrimental, if you don’t speak out against it, you are condoning it with your silence.

“I do not condone the erosion of the separation of church and state in any form,” he said. “That’s why I couldn’t stay silent anymore.”

Stewart, who served five years as a commissioned reserve officer in the Marines, is now serving as plaintiff in a lawsuit Americans United filed Jan. 13 against Johnson County for favoring a particular religious belief and violating his free speech rights.

The county commission has opened the local courthouse to displays from the public, so long as they directly relate to the development of the history or heritage of the law.

Under the policy, commissioners have approved a Ten Commandments display that includes Christian and governmental documents and exhibits that county officials regard as “historical.”

But Stewart was denied his request to display posters on church-state separation that cite Supreme Court cases, the Constitution and other relevant documents.

“It upset me that they were displaying something incorrect,” he said. “Kids are going to go through there and believe that the Ten Commandments are the basis of our laws.”

In Stewart v. Johnson County, Americans United contends that the commission is engaging in impermissible content­based and viewpointbased discrimination in violation of the First Amendment. The complaint also charges that the commission’s actions were undertaken with a religious purpose, have a predominantly religious effect, endorse religion and prefer religion over non­religion.

Americans United attorneys are asking the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee at Greeneville to find the county’s actions unconstitutional. They say the federal court should order the county to accept Stewart’s posters, or in the alternative, close the public forum at the courthouse and remove the Decalogue, along with any other displays.

“The government should never play favorites when it comes to religion,” said Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director. “All Americans should be treated fairly and respectfully by their government, regardless of their beliefs about religion.”

The lawsuit has sparked a predictable response from Religious Right advocates. Mat Staver, dean of Liberty University’s School of Law, recently lambasted Americans United about the case.

“This is something that they are intent on doing across the county,” he told One News Now, a conservative news service. “They’re out to literally destroy America; they’re out to erase our religious heritage and religious symbols from every area of life.”

Staver, head of a Religious Right legal group called Liberty Counsel, went on to criticize Ralph Stewart for his understanding of the law.

“This individual wants to put up false information, essentially saying that separation of church and state is required or part of the Constitution, which we know it’s not,” Staver said.

Some Johnson County officials think they have the right to favor one faith over others and display those symbols only.

“This is a good Christian community that welcomes people who move here,” Johnson County Planning Commissioner Mike Tavalario said after the commission voted to deny Stewart’s request to display his posters. “But if you want to attack God, you should leave.”

The battle over the Commandments display has a long history in Johnson County. In 1999, the county first displayed a single plaque with the religious text in the hallway outside the county court clerk’s office. The plaque cited the Commandments as “The Historical Foundation of American Law, Moral Values and Code of Conduct” and noted that it was “Presented by Citizens of Johnson County.”

In August 2008, after receiving complaints about the plaque, Americans United wrote to County Mayor Dick Grayson and asked that the display be removed from the courthouse and transferred to private property.

“The Johnson County Ten Commandments plaque is displayed alone and is not integrated into a larger display with a unified secular theme,” AU’s letter asserted. “We also understand that it was installed only within the past several years, so there is no historical justification for its preservation. Thus, the display cannot withstand [constitutional] scrutiny, and the County risks legal liability if it remains in place.”

In response to Americans United’s letter, the Johnson County Commission approved a new policy in October 2008 that would allow “citizens and citizen groups to place displays relating to history and heritage of American law and government on the walls in the lobby of the Johnson County Courthouse.” Citizens who wanted to contribute a document or display would have to submit a written request.

The county then removed the original Commandments plaque from the courthouse.

But by November 2008, a Johnson County resident found a way to display the Ten Commandments under the new policy.

At the Nov. 20 meeting of the commission, Scott Teague presented a proposed display on behalf of the Rotary Club and the “Ten Commandment Warriors,” a group of his supporters.

Teague, a funeral director and member of The Gideons International, believes America is “in an economic crisis because we’ve fallen out of the will of God” and that installing the Commandments in public buildings would put the country on the right path. He even wants Congress to pass a law requiring the Decalogue to be posted in all public buildings, including schools.

Teague’s display consisted of the original Commandments plaque from the courthouse, and accompanying plaques with quotes from Ben Franklin and Samuel Adams plus excerpts from the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. It also includes a quote from the Supreme Court’s Lynch v. Donnelly decision asserting that the Constitution does not mandate a “complete separation of church and state.”

Accompanying the display is a 26-page pamphlet by local clergy contending that U.S. law springs from biblical morality and that the United States was founded on Christian principles.

The pamphlet’s introduction, titled “From Biblical Morality to Modern Law,” was written by Dr. Thomas Peake, pastor of the Mountain City Presbyterian Church. In it, he explains that the Ten Commandments are displayed together at the courthouse with excerpts from the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution to “underscore their profound connectedness.”

An essay in the pamphlet, written by the Rev. Dwayne Dickson, pastor of the First Christian Church of Mountain City, identifies and discusses biblical principles. Headlined “The Seven Principles of the Judeo-Christian Ethic,” it includes scripture quotations about the dignity of human life, the traditional monogamous family, a national work ethic, the right to a God-centered education, the Abrahamic Covenant, common decency and our personal accountability to God.

Teague’s submission was approved, and in August 2009, a dedication ceremony was held that began with a “Patriotic Prayer Walk,” and with prayers delivered at city hall, Johnson County School Central Office and local businesses.

In addition to several ministers, two state representatives spoke in support of governmental prayer and the need for God to be back in government.

Pastor Dickson explained that it is the shepherd’s job to spot wolves and protect the flock and said he was proud that Johnson County citizens were standing up for their “God-given rights.”

Mountain City, the county seat of Johnson County, also declared the fourth Saturday of every August as “Ten Commandments Awareness Day.”

Teague announced he would stand by his display.

“God have mercy on the soul of any person who attempts to have these documents removed from the courthouse or any courthouse in America,” he told the crowd.

In addition to Teague’s display, the commission approved several other displays for the courthouse, including a historical items cabinet, a framed Tennessee National Guard poster, a poster of the United States flag, a framed quilt and two framed pictures of wildlife.

But in the summer of 2010, the commission rejected Stewart’s request to put up his posters.

One poster, entitled “On the Legal Heritage of the Separation of Church and State,” asserted, “The Constitution of the United States prohibits government from favoring one religion or disparaging any other.” It featured three quotations – one from the First Amendment, another from a 1989 Supreme Court case and a third from the Treaty with Tripoli, an agreement unanimously passed by the U.S. Senate in 1797 that declares the United States is not a Christian nation.

Below these quotations is the statement: “The Founding Fathers recognized the wall separating church and state,” along with observations from Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and John Leland, a Baptist minister and friend of Jefferson.

Stewart’s second poster, titled “The Ten Commandments are not the Foundation of American Law,” asserts that the primary source of American law is the common and statutory law of England, not the Bible or Christianity.

Noting that “America’s seminal documents do not even mention the Bible, Christianity or the Ten Commandments,” the poster offers quotations from the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

The poster observes that many of the Ten Commandments – those dealing with religious matters – could not be enacted as laws in the United States because the Constitution prohibits government from compelling theological beliefs. (Two Supreme Court cases are cited.)

Commandments such as “Thou shalt not kill” and “Thou shalt not steal,” the poster noted, are found in virtually every culture, including non-Judeo-Christian ones.

Though Stewart’s posters feature quotes from the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, U.S. Supreme Court decisions and the nation’s founders – the same types of historical sources accompanying the Ten Commandments plaque – the county commissioners turned down his display.

Teague, who became a local celebrity for his 440-mile walk to Washington, D.C., in 2009 to gain support for similar Commandments public displays, argued in the local paper that the posters Stewart proposed brought disgrace to the U.S. Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and the Ten Commandments and had no place near Teague’s “historical display.”

“The Ten Commandments Warriors nor I will not stand by idle,” he said. “I strongly encourage anyone who has a deep concern about this issue to inquire when it will be discussed again and be there. We will rally the troops once again to defend our majority rights.”

Mayor Grayson soon sought the advice of a national Religious Right legal group, the Alliance Defense Fund, which according to its website works to “spread…the Gospel” through legal defense. At the June 17, 2010, meeting, Grayson announced Stewart’s submission did not meet the county’s policy standards and the commission would not approve it.

Stewart wasn’t surprised. He had already become disliked in the community after asking questions about the religious display. He noted that 23 Commandments signs have been placed on every pole along a country road near his residence. But it didn’t affect his resolve to be treated fairly.

“I don’t think it’s right that I have been prevented from expressing my views, while others are able to do so freely,” said Stewart.”I really don’t want this to happen to others who hold different beliefs from the majority.”

AU Litigation Counsel Gregory M. Lipper is overseeing the Stewart v. Johnson County lawsuit with AU Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan and AU Madison Fellow Hellen Papavizas. D. Bruce Shine, an attorney in Kingsport, Tenn., is serving as local counsel in the case.

Said Lipper, “Our courthouses should welcome all citizens, regardless of their views about religion. I am optimistic that the federal court will remedy this situation.”