GAINESVILLE, Fla. (CN) – A county courthouse just outside the Florida panhandle does not have to remove a display of the Ten Commandments from its steps while the 11th Circuit considers an appeal of the order to remove it, a federal judge ruled.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida sued Dixie County when a local businessman won approval to place a monument displaying the Ten Commandments on the courthouse steps.
According to the complaint, the 5-feet tall granite monument, which was installed in November 2006, sits alone on the front steps, directly under the Dixie County Courthouse title. In addition to the Ten Commandments, it features the inscription “Love God and Keep His Commandments.”
The ACLU called the display “an unconstitutional endorsement of religion by Dixie County,” asserting that it violated the Establishment Clause. But the county argued that the display was protected as private speech since it was not commissioned or owned by the government.
In August 2008, a federal judge agreed that the local ACLU had standing to sue. Shortly thereafter, Dixie approved a set of “monument placement guidelines” meant to dissociate the county from any courthouse steps displays. The guidelines required Dixie residents and organizations applying for monument permits to display a disclaimer on the courthouse steps, stating that the county did not endorse the monuments or the message they conveyed. Monument owners are also now required to post a bond of up to $50,000 and obtain general liability insurance coverage of $5 million.
In spite of these measures, however, Dixie never required the owner of the Ten Commandments display to post a bond or obtain insurance, according to the complaint.
At this point, the county installed a notice on the monument that attributed ownership to its private sponsor.
But U.S. District Judge Maurice Paul concluded last month that these facts were not enough to establish that the monument was purely private speech.
The court also rejected the county’s argument that the Ten Commandments display was not permanent because it was not anchored to the stone of the courthouse steps, and therefore did not imply government endorsement.
“The monument in question weighs 12 thousand pounds, has been there for three years, and Dixie County has no plans to move it,” the 13-page ruling states. “In fact, Dixie County has defended this lawsuit with the objective of maintaining the monument’s current location.”
“Despite the actual ownership of the monument, the location and permanent nature of the display make it clear to all reasonable observers that Dixie County chooses to be associated with the message being conveyed,” Paul added.
The court also found that the context and location of the display clearly established Dixie County’s endorsement of its religious message.
The fact that the ACLU challenged the monument just two months after it was installed is further proof that the display was associated with the county and its efforts to “promote religion over nonreligion,” according to the July 15 ruling.
Paul directed the county to remove the display within 30 days, but he agreed to stay that order on Monday because Dixie County has appealed to the 11th Circuit. “Staying injunctions pending appeal is particularly appropriate where, as here, doing so would preserve the status quo” without harming the interested parties or the public, the latest decision states.