Church-state Watchdog Group Files Lawsuit Challenging Government Display Of Ten Commandments In Pittsburgh

Legal Action Seeks Removal Of Religious Plaque At Allegheny County Courthouse

Americans United for Separation of Church and State today filed a lawsuit in federal court on behalf of two Allegheny County, Pa., residents seeking to have a Ten Commandments plaque removed from the county courthouse.

The legal action, Modrovich v. Allegheny County, challenges display of a four-foot tall bronze tablet on the side of the public building containing a Protestant version of the Ten Commandments as well as the "Great Commandment" of Jesus from the New Testament.

Two Allegheny County residents, Andy Modrovich and James Moore, are the plaintiffs in the case, which was filed in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania. The two assert that the presence of a sectarian document on the courthouse wall constitutes government endorsement of religion in violation of the First Amendment.

The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, said it is vitally important that government refrain from endorsing or promoting religion through religious displays on public property, such as the plaque in Pittsburgh. 

"In the eyes of the law, all citizens are equal, regardless of their religious beliefs or lack thereof," said Lynn. "A courthouse adorned with a sectarian document runs afoul of that bedrock principle of our legal system."

Continued Lynn, "As a minister, I respect the Ten Commandments and the teachings of Jesus. But I am convinced that churches are the appropriate places for the display of religious codes, not government buildings. Government must remain neutral on religious matters." (Lynn is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, as well as a long-time civil liberties attorney.)

Attorneys with Americans United note that the organization filed legal action only after attempting to resolve the matter without litigation. Americans United first contacted the county about its concerns over the plaque last October and asked that it be removed. AU's Lynn later proposed that the county donate the plaque to a local historical organization.

These suggestions were rebuffed, however. The county solicitor sent Americans United a letter in December stating that the plaque would not be removed, and members of the county council voted 11-2 on Jan. 16 to continue the display.

The plaque, which is bolted to the courthouse, has been on display since 1918, when it was donated by the International Reform Bureau, a group that referred to itself as a "Christian lobby." The listing of the commandments is from the King James Version of the Bible, a Protestant version of the Christian scriptures.

According to the plaintiffs' complaint, "The perpetuation of the display ignores the well-settled constitutional principle that state and local governments must follow a course of neutrality toward religion which neither advances nor inhibits religion. The continuation of the display offends the clear proposition that the government may not place its imprimatur on or appear to be endorsing a specific religious doctrine, a particular religious sect, or religion in general."

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization represents 60,000 members nationwide, including many members in Pennsylvania and Allegheny County.

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.