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FREETHOUGHT SOCIETY v. CHESTER COUNTY

March 6, 2002

FREETHOUGHT SOCIETY ET AL.
V.
CHESTER COUNTY ET AL.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Dalzell, J.

MEMORANDUM

Before us is plaintiffs' request for a permanent injunction against the authorities of Chester County, Pennsylvania, from maintaining a plaque on the County Courthouse that displays the full text of the King James Version of the Ten Commandments.

To consider this vexing question under the First Amendment's Establishment Clause ("Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion"), we held a non-jury trial on March 4 — 5, 2002. This Memorandum will constitute our findings of fact and conclusions of law, in accordance with Fed.R.Civ.P. 52(a).

Factual Background

The genesis of this particular Ten Commandments plaque is not in serious dispute.

On March 1, 1920, the Chester County Commissioners authorized the county's acceptance of a gift of the plaque from the Council of Religious Education of the Federated Churches of West Chester. All known members of the Council at the time were clergy or laymen of mainline Protestant denominations. On November 8 of that year, the County Commissioners specified the placement of the plaque on the east front of the High Street side of the Chester County Courthouse, where it remains to this day in the Borough of West Chester. On December 6, 1920, the County Commissioners authorized their Solicitor, Mr. MacElree, to be present at the unveiling of the tablet on Saturday, December 11, and he accepted the plaque on the county's behalf.

The dedication was held in Courtroom 2 of the County Courthouse. The program of that dedication, received in evidence at trial, was stipulated to be authentic and records that the ceremony was presided over by the Rev. Mr. Samuel C. Hodge, Chairman of the Council. It opened with an invocation that the Rev. Mr. Jay Dickerson, Pastor of the Methodist Episcopal Church, led. Those present then sang the hymn, "Before Jehovah's Awful Throne." After two speeches, including one by a Common Pleas Court Judge, the plaque was unveiled. The program records that all were then called upon to recite antiphonally a prayer of dedication that the Rev. Mr. Charles R. Williamson led:

Leader: Because we believe that the Ten Commandments are basic to righteousness and justice in government, industry, commerce, the administration of law, and in society.

Response: We Dedicate to God this tablet of the Ten Commandments.

Leader: Because we believe that the presence of these inscriptions in bronze of the Ten Commandments will be a reminder, to all who read as they pass by, of their duty and responsibility to God and their fellow men.

Response: We Solemnly Dedicate to the cause of public morality this tablet of the Ten Commandments.

Leader: Because we believe that the presence of this tablet on this temple, dedicated to justice and the cause of human rights, will be an inspiration to righteous living on the part of our youth and children.

Response: We Joyfully Dedicate to the interests of a better generation of citizens and a better nation this tablet.

All: All Of Which We Do in holy fear of Him who is Ruler over all and the Father of us all.

Amen! Amen! and Amen!

See Pl'ffs.' Ex. 11. After singing "My Country, `Tis of Thee", the Rev. Mr. Charles A. Walker gave the closing Benediction. Id.

According to contemporary newspaper accounts, the keynote speaker, Judge J. Frank E. Hause, decried lax Sabbath observance with the words, "Have you remembered the Sabbath Day to keep it holy? If you disobey the commandments here and escape punishment, there is yet the punishment which will surely be meted out on the day of judgment."*fn1

The Ten Commandments plaque is fifty inches tall and thirty-nine inches wide and has, as noted, remained at the same location on the Courthouse's High Street facade since its dedication in 1920. When one faces the east side of the Courthouse, and looks through the six Corinthian pillars a few feet in front of that facade, the Ten Commandments plaque stands out against the white stone blocks it is mounted on. To its north there are two small signs saying "No Smoking Building" and identifying the structure as historically significant. Nevertheless, as defendants' Ex. 29 shows, the Ten Commandments tablet dominates the left or south side of the High Street facade. On the right, north side of the door, there are signs identifying the building, giving its business hours, and directing people to after-hours access; there is also a small plaque confirming that the building is registered on the National Register of Historic Places. There is thus no other tablet on the High Street facade of any substantive historical, political or philosophical content.*fn2

The English text of the Ten Commandments is taken from the version King James commissioned in 1603, known to scholars as the Authorized Version. The tablet takes its text from that translation of Exodus 20:2-17 and Deuteronomy 5:6-21, with the Summary from Matthew 22:37 and 39, which are Jesus' words bringing together Deut. 6:5 and Lev. 19:18. The tablet's exact words, paragraphing, and relative font size, follow:

THE COMMANDMENTS

THOU SHALT HAVE NO OTHER GODS BEFORE ME.

THOU SHALT NOT MAKE UNTO THEE ANY GRAVEN IMAGE, OR ANY LIKENESS OF ANY THING THAT IS IN HEAVEN ABOVE, OR THAT IS IN THE EARTH BENEATH, OR THAT IS IN THE WATER UNDER THE EARTH:

THOU SHALT NOT BOW DOWN THYSELF TO THEM NOR SERVE THEM:

FOR I THE LORD THY GOD AM A JEALOUS GOD, VISITING THE INIQUITY OF THE FATHERS UPON THE CHILDREN UNTO THE THIRD AND FOURTH GENERATION OF THEM THAT HATE ME. AND SHOWING MERCY UNTO THOUSANDS OF THEM THAT LOVE ME AND KEEP MY COMMANDMENTS.

THOU SHALT NOT TAKE THE NAME OF THE LORD THY GOD IN VAIN:

FOR THE LORD WILL NOT HOLD HIM GUILTLESS THAT TAKETH ...


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