Originally created 03/06/03

Judges debate critics of seal



ATLANTA - Three federal appeals judges deciding whether the depiction of the Ten Commandments on the Richmond County Superior Court seal is unconstitutional sounded reluctant Wednesday to scrap the 131-year-old symbol.

A federal district judge in Augusta ruled last year that the seal is permissible because it does not directly promote religion.

The American Civil Liberties Union appealed that ruling, and arguments were heard Wednesday by a three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The panel's decision isn't expected for months, but ACLU lawyer Robert Tsai said he would appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court if the seal is allowed to remain in use.

As Mr. Tsai outlined the objections of three Augusta residents, the judges peppered him with questions. They asked whether he had proof that the seal was designed to promote a particular religion.

"Why Christianity?" Senior Judge Phyllis Kravitch asked. "The Jewish religion also uses the Ten Commandments."

Mr. Tsai said all 57 letters written about the case were from people asking that their Christian symbol be preserved. Chief Judge J.L. Edmondson shot back, "How about all the people who didn't write in who thought your case was a joke?"

Judge Kravitch noted that the U.S. Supreme Court has a similar seal on the door to the courtroom because all Western laws stem from the Ten Commandments. As the source of all laws, the Ten Commandments have a secular purpose, she said, especially when used as part of a seal applied to court documents and no others.

Mr. Tsai said that 24,000 documents each year are embossed with the seal and that many people who don't want to see it are unable to avoid it.

Judge Edmondson noted that in the 11 years he has lived in Fulton County he has had no occasion to see that county's court seal outside his capacity as a judge. He asked how many people in Richmond County see the seal and are offended by it.

No appeals court has found that a symbol such as Richmond County's is unconstitutional. It has no text, just two tablets with Roman numerals. Other symbols, including crosses, have been declared in violation of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits government establishment of religion.

Reach Walter C. Jones at (404) 589-8424 or wjones@morris.com.