ATHENS, Ga. - A resolution adopted by three northeast Georgia counties supporting the Ten Commandments could be challenged as unconstitutional, according to a University of Georgia constitutional law expert.
The resolution, recently adopted by boards of commissioners in Franklin, Madison and Habersham counties, says the counties will "defend (their) right to display to the limit of (their) abilities" the Ten Commandments.
R.W. Moore, of Eastanollee, has dedicated himself to presenting the resolution to commissions in all 159 Georgia counties. He says more focus on the Ten Commandments could curb societal ills such as school violence.
"These things are all related to not having the Ten Commandments in schools or prayer in schools," Mr. Moore said. "Our country was set up on Christian principles, and we've gotten away from that."
When asked about issues regarding the separation of church and state, Mr. Moore said the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment supports his project and added that the offices of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington display the Ten Commandments.
"It doesn't actually mean you'll post them (the Ten Commandments)," he said. "It means you'll defend them. You're exercising your right to the First Amendment. It is our right to have that."
But University of Georgia law professor Dan Coenen said Monday that although the First Amendment does allow the free practice of religion, governments are not allowed to show preference for one religion over another.
The principle of nonpreferentialism is part of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, Mr. Coenen said. There is a difference, he said, between intentionally choosing one religion and generically endorsing the idea of religion through legislative prayers and the inscription on U.S. currency - "In God We Trust."
"'In God We Trust' generally endorses the idea of God. It invokes a very generic statement about religion," he said. "My interpretation (of the resolution) is, you have a quite intentional endorsement of a Judeo-Christian text. Even under a quite narrow view of the First Amendment, there would be a strong argument against it."
Mr. Coenen said he did not know of U.S. Supreme Court cases involving this particular resolution, but he did point to the court's decision in a similar case in 1980, Stone vs. Graham. The case challenged a Kentucky law that required the posting of the Ten Commandments in the state's public schools.
"The court struck that law down. The idea in the case is that the government cannot pass a law that has a purpose of promoting religion," Mr. Coenen said.
Mr. Coenen added that an atheist or someone of a faith other than Christianity who lives in one of the counties with the resolution could possibly be successful in a lawsuit against it.
Franklin County was the first in Georgia to approve the resolution. Peggy Fountain, clerk of Franklin's Board of Commissioners, said a committee has been formed to research an "appropriate" way to display the Ten Commandments in the county courthouse.
While Mr. Moore's own Stephens County rejected the resolution, Habersham became the latest county to adopt it, when it did so May 7.
The Madison County Commission approved the resolution with a unanimous vote last month. Commission Chairman Wesley Nash said he is unsure how the resolution will be used in Madison County or how it will affect residents.
"I've had the Ten Commandments hanging up there (in the Madison County governmental complex in Danielsville) since I came into office, so I don't see how it will make a difference," he said.
He said he has received little feedback from county residents.
"In my knowledge, there's a lot of different religions. The Ten Commandments and the principles expressed by it are in every religion I've ever studied," Mr. Nash said. "I don't feel the Ten Commandments is expressly Jewish or Christian or Buddhist. It represents all religions."
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