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Wednesday, February 28, 2024
Courthouse News Service
Wednesday, February 28, 2024 | Back issues
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PA School Can’t Yet Nix Commandments Case

(CN) - A Pennsylvania school district cannot nix claims that its 56-year-old Ten Commandments statue is unconstitutional, a federal judge ruled.

In 1957, the Fraternal Order of Eagles, a national civic organization, donated a nearly 6-foot-tall stone monument of the Ten Commandments to the Connellsville Area Junior High School in Pennsylvania.

The monolith, which stands near the front entrance to the school auditorium, also bears two stars of David and two tablets inlayed with what appears to be ancient script.

On Sept. 27, 2012, the Freedom From Religion Foundation sued the Connellsville Area School District. Joining as plaintiffs were a "non-religious" Connellsville student and his foundation-member parent, referred to in court documents as Does 4 and 5, respectively.

They claimed the statue coerces students to adopt the school district's preferred belief system and usurps parents' rights to raise their children as they see fit.

The school district moved to dismiss, arguing that the plaintiffs' claim is foreclosed by recent U.S. Supreme Court precedent on the establishment clause. It also questioned the subject-matter jurisdiction for various allegations in the complaint.

In an opposition brief, the foundation challenged the school district's understanding of the establishment clause precedent and said the court must adopt the viewpoint of a reasonable observer to determine whether the monument conveys a message favoring religion.

U.S. District Judge Terrence McVerry in Pittsburgh denied the district's motions on March 7.

"The relevant averments of the complaint describe an alleged agreement between defendant and the Connellsville Church of God whereby the latter submitted an offer to accept the monument at issue and display the decalogue on its private property which sits next to Connellsville Area Senior High School and the district's athletic field, which is located on property owned by the church and rented to defendant," McVerry wrote. "Based on those allegations, plaintiffs submit that Doe 4 will still suffer a cognizable constitutional injury should the school district relocate the monument to private property. While the court certainly understands the potential impact relocation to private property may have on its jurisdiction, denial is still appropriate."

The Supreme Court's jurisprudence does not foreclose the matter, the court found.

"Plaintiffs have adduced sufficient support to permit the court to draw the reasonable inference that the claim plaintiffs advance has sufficient merit under our current jurisprudence," McVerry wrote. "Likewise, a review of the record reveals that there is no meaningful evidence to support the school district's attack on the merits of plaintiff's case and thus the 'foreclosure' argument is unavailing at this time."

The parties may conduct discovery regarding the school district's purpose for accepting and maintaining the monument so that the court can later rule on this "difficult context-driven task."

The school district must respond to the complaint by March 21, and a case management conference is scheduled for April 11, according to the 23-page ruling.

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