School removes Ten Commandments plaque after watchdog group calls it ‘unconstitutional’

A public middle school in Ohio has taken down a historic Ten Commandments plaque from its auditorium entrance after a watchdog group called for its removal. (Photo: Getty Images)

A public middle school in Ohio has taken down a historic Ten Commandments plaque from its auditorium entrance after a Wisconsin-based watchdog group called for its removal.

The religious plaque, allegedly a gift from the Class of 1926 to the New Philadelphia City School District, has been displayed on the wall of Welty Middle School since 1927. The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), which identifies as a “nonprophet nonprofit, [which] works as an effective state/church watchdog and voice for freethought,” filed a complaint to the district on April 12, according to the Times Reporter.

The FFRF was prompted to take action after a concerned parent brought it to their attention. The group agreed that “public schools may not advance or endorse religion.”

In their complaint, they called the plaque “unconstitutional,” and pointed to a legal case in which a court ordered that Pennsylvania high school must relocate a Ten Commandments monument in 2017, according to CBS Pittsburgh. The decision was made on the principle of separating church and state.

Brian J. DeSantis, a Cleveland attorney representing New Philadelphia City Schools, confirmed the plaque’s removal on June 19 in an email to Christopher Line of the FFRF. “In speaking with the district,” wrote DeSantis, “it is my understanding that the plaque has been taken down and is no longer on display on district property.”

New Philadelphia Schools Superintendent David Brand acknowledged that the plaque is a “well-established and historic piece of ... history” but said that if the district objected to the FFRF’s request, it would have to “overturn a U.S. Supreme Court decision from 1980. Additionally, the District would need to become the first public school to successfully defend a Ten Commandments display in a school setting.”

In 1980, the Supreme Court addressed the constitutionality of religious displays in public places while reviewing a Kentucky law that required the Ten Commandments to be displayed in classrooms, according to the Pew Research Center. They concluded that it “amounted to government sponsorship of religion and was therefore unconstitutional.”

He also cited the exorbitant legal fees the district would have to pay if its fight to keep the plaque was unsuccessful — a rough estimate of $900,000. “Clearly, challenging the issue legally would be an enormous risk and burden to the local taxpayers,” said Line, adding, “In addition to funding multi-year litigation, the District will divert staff, time, and energy from the District’s true purpose — student learning.”

In turn, Line expressed the foundation’s approval with the district’s actions. “As far as we’re concerned, this situation is completely resolved,” said Line. “We’re happy that the district did the right thing by taking down this religious promotion.”

But the district was not as tolerant of the FFRF’s approach. “Rather than meeting with the District to begin a dialogue,” wrote Brand to the Times-Reporter, “FFRF sent a letter from its office in Wisconsin and then used the local media to further the issue.”

That being said, Brand confirmed that the district will not attempt to retaliate against the FFRF’s approach, as “the community’s resources are at stake.”

“The District will consider filing an amicus brief in a forthcoming case on the matter,” he said. According to the Public Health Law Center, amicus briefs are “briefs [that] advise the court of relevant, additional information or arguments that the court might wish to consider.”

“While members of the District do not agree with FFRF’s conduct,” Brand continued, “the District believes acting on its own terms is the most effective way to oppose FFRF and to continue to serve its students.”

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