AU Files Lawsuit Challenging Tennessee County’s Unconstitutional Preference For Christianity

Johnson County Commission Allowed Posting Of Ten Commandments, But Turned Down Local Man’s Church State Display, Watchdog Group Charges

A Tennessee county’s preference for Christianity in its courthouse displays violates the U.S. Constitution, according to a federal lawsuit filed today by Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Americans United, a Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group, is challenging the Johnson County Commission’s decision to display the Ten Commandments and Christian literature in the courthouse lobby while refusing to display a local man’s posters about the historic role of church-state separation in American law.

“The Johnson County Commission is promoting religion through its displays,” observes the complaint. “In addition, the Commission refuses to allow alternative points of view to be heard. This is a twofold violation of the First Amendment.”

AU’s legal complaint notes that in 2008, after county resident Ralph Stewart challenged the county’s display of the Ten Commandments, the Johnson County Commission adopted a policy which created a public forum for displays on the walls of the county courthouse lobby. Displays are allowed so long as they directly relate to the development of the history or heritage of the law.

After the adoption of the new policy, the Commission unanimously approved a display sponsored by the Rotary Club of Mountain City and the Ten Commandments Warriors that features the Ten Commandments alongside excerpts from the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, U.S. Supreme Court decisions and the nation’s founders.

The display itself claims that the Ten Commandments are the historical foundation of American law. Accompanying it is a pamphlet written by local clergy that contends U.S. law springs from biblical morality and insists that the United States was founded on Christian principles.  

The Commission, however, rejected two posters proposed by Stewart that explain the legal heritage of church

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.