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story.lead_photo.caption The Ten Commandments monument, which sits near the state Capitol in Little Rock, violates the First Amendment mandate for religious neutrality, according to two lawsuits seeking its removal. - Photo by Thomas Metthe

The Ten Commandments monument recently re-erected on the state Capitol grounds constitutes an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion in violation of the First Amendment, according to two federal lawsuits filed Wednesday in Little Rock.

Both lawsuits -- one filed by members of a walking and cycling club backed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas, and the other by a coalition of people representing various religions, including Christianity, and secular groups -- want Secretary of State Mark Martin ordered to remove the 6-foot-tall granite monolith.

Both groups contend that the monument shepherded into existence by Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway, stands as an unavoidable, in-your-face affront to their beliefs.

"At its core, the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment mandates religious neutrality. It prevents the government from favoring some religions over others, and religion over nonreligion," says the suit filed by writer and attorney Anne Orsi, president of the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers; the American Humanist Association; the Freedom from Religion Foundation; Joan Dietz, an active member of the Episcopal Church; Gale Stewart, a practicing New Testament Christian; Teresa Grider, a practicing solitary Wiccan, Pagan and Buddhist; Rabbi Eugene Levy; the Rev. Vic Nixon, a Methodist minister; and agnostic Walter Riddick, an attorney.

[DOCUMENTS: Read lawsuits seeking to have the Ten Commandments monument removed]

"The courts have been clear that the First Amendment protects religious freedom and prohibits the government from engaging in this kind of overt and heavy-handed religious favoritism," said Rita Sklar, executive director of the ACLU of Arkansas, which is behind the other lawsuit.

That suit was filed by retired teacher Donna Cave, who is agnostic; retired federal judicial law clerk Judith Lansky, who is Jewish and an atheist; retired clinical social worker Pat Piazza, an agnostic; and Susan Russell, a research associate with the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences who is agnostic.

All four women are members of a walking and bicycling group whose regular routes include the Capitol grounds -- including the site where the monument sits prominently between the Capitol and the Justice Building.

The monument was first installed on June 27, 2017, but was toppled and broken within 24 hours by a man who rammed it with his vehicle during the night. Michael Tate Reed of Van Buren, the driver who streamed the destruction live on Facebook, was later committed to the State Hospital after being found mentally unfit to stand trial.

A replacement statue, paid for by donations to the American History and Heritage Foundation, which Rapert created, was reinstalled April 26 -- this time surrounded by four, 3-foot-tall concrete bollards.

Rapert, who drafted the 2015 legislation authorizing the monument's placement, responded to the lawsuits Wednesday in a prepared statement that began, "Today I was informed that several anti-American organizations have filed two federal lawsuits basically declaring their own war" on the monument and its authorizing legislation, Act 1231 of 2015, which was codified as Arkansas Code Annotated 22-3-221.

Noting that the foundation fully funded the project and gave the monument to the state, Rapert said: "The sole reason we donated this monument ... is because the Ten Commandments are an important component to the foundation of the laws and legal system of the United States of America and the State of Arkansas. Passive acknowledgements of the role played by the Ten Commandments in our nation's heritage are common throughout America and the Supreme Court ruled in Van Orden v. Perry in 2005 that such monuments are constitutional."

In that case, the U.S. Supreme Court said a monument that had been in place for decades at the state Capitol in Austin, Texas, didn't violate the Establishment Clause because it conveyed a historic and social meaning, rather than an intrusive religious endorsement.

In October, the U.S. Supreme Court turned down a request to hear an appeal from the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled that a new Ten Commandments monument placed on the grounds of City Hall in Bloomfield, N.M., was unconstitutional, in violation of the Establishment Clause, and ordered it removed.

Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge was part of a coalition of attorneys from nearly two dozen states who in August filed a brief with the U.S. Supreme Court in support of the New Mexico town's appeal. At the time, Rutledge said, "Displaying the Ten Commandments, which many acknowledge as a significant basis for American law, is perfectly constitutional."

Noting that the law wasn't being applied consistently, she urged the nation's highest court to take up the matter and offer "much-needed clarity."

Arkansas' Ten Commandments Monument Display Act was signed into law April 8, 2015, by Gov. Asa Hutchinson. It directs Secretary of State Mark Martin -- the only named defendant in both lawsuits -- to "permit and arrange for the placement on the State Capitol grounds of a suitable monument commemorating the Ten Commandments."

The law details the precise wording engraved on the granite monolith. The heading states, "The Ten Commandments/I AM the LORD thy God."

It is followed by: "Thou Shalt have no other gods before me./Thou shalt not make to thyself any graven images./Thou shalt not take the Name of the Lord thy God in vain./Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy./Honor they father and thy mother, that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee./Thou shalt not kill./Thou shalt not commit adultery./Thou shall not steal./Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor./Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's house./Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his cattle, nor anything that is thy neighbor's."

A spokesman for Martin said he would have no comment on the lawsuits. Rapert said he has "full confidence" in Rutledge's ability to defend against the suits.

Hutchinson said through a spokesman: "The ACLU lawsuit is disappointing but not a surprise. Similar lawsuits have been filed in other states, and it is my understanding that the placement and funding of the monument meets constitutional standards."

"It is time for the people of this nation to stand together and defend our history and heritage," Rapert said.

Sklar called the monument "a government-sponsored religious shrine" that "sends a divisive message that the state endorses a specific religious doctrine to the exclusion of all others."

She said that "when government officials take sides in matters of religion, they alienate those who don't subscribe to that particular set of beliefs and undermine everyone's right to religious freedom. Arkansas politicians are once again using public property to promote their personal religious beliefs at the cost of Arkansans' fundamental rights."

Cave, who is agnostic, was quoted in the ACLU's news release as saying the state's endorsement of one religion "makes me feel like a second-class citizen." She added, "Government officials shouldn't be in the business of dividing people along religious lines -- they should represent everyone."

The ACLU-backed lawsuit filed on behalf of Cave, Lansky, Piazza and Russell was assigned to U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker. It seeks a declaratory ruling that the law authorizing the monument is unconstitutional, as well as orders directing the immediate removal of the monument and preventing the law from being enforced in the future.

The suit was filed by Little Rock attorney John Burnett, North Little Rock attorney Joshua Gillespie, and Andrew G. Schultz and Melanie Stumbaugh of Albuquerque, N.M. Schultz was also involved in the New Mexico monument case.

The other lawsuit, led by Orsi and filed by attorney Gerry Schulze of Little Rock and out-of-state attorneys for the American Humanist Association and the Freedom From Religion Foundation, was assigned to U.S. District Judge James Moody Jr. and seeks similar relief.

Schulze and Holly Dickson, staff attorney for the ACLU of Arkansas, said they expect the two lawsuits to be combined at some point because they make the same claims. But Schulze said they weren't combined from the beginning because each takes a slightly different perspective.

"This is not a case of atheists versus the believers," he said. "Even believers have an interest in the state favoring one religion over another or one version of the Commandments over another."

His lawsuit says one of the plaintiffs, Dietz, of Little Rock, who attends an Episcopal church, contends the monument "misrepresents her Christian faith because it appears to send the message that Christians feel superior to others, which is contrary to the teachings of her Christian faith."

It says Levy, the rabbi, "objects to the use of a particular English translation in preference to the original, sacred Hebrew," and also objects to the monument's imagery and the state giving preference to one religion over another.

Photo by AP file photo
Rita Sklar, executive director if the ACLU of Arkansas, is shown in this file photo.
Photo by Staton Breidenthal
Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway, is shown in this file photo.

Metro on 05/24/2018

Print Headline: Ten Commandments at Capitol stirs 2 suits

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