Originally created 08/11/05

Bill for commandments suit goes to taxpayers

WINDER, Ga. - Barrow County commissioners voted 4-2 Tuesday to spend taxpayer dollars to cover the legal fees an anonymous resident incurred when he sued the government over a Ten Commandments display at the courthouse in Winder.

Commissioners had little choice but to pay the $150,000 a federal judge assessed the county after officials agreed to give up the fight over the display. The county was ordered to pay the challenger's legal expenses.

Still, the commission voted 4-2 to pay the legal fees, with District 1 Commissioner Jerry Lampp and District 4's Isaiah Berry voting against the settlement.

"My disagreement is with the ACLU," Mr. Lampp said, explaining his vote. "I was not in favor of negotiating with the ACLU to make a settlement."

The money will come from the county government's fund reserve, Barrow County Commission Chairman Doug Garrison has said.

"It's wrong. We've had no say in it," resident Darrell Sellers said. complaining about using taxpayer dollars to pay legal fees. Public comment was not allowed at the meeting.

"I feel very betrayed and lied to," said Bethlehem resident Pat Rutledge, pointing out that commissioners voted in October not to spend any more tax money on the suit.

The American Civil Liberties Union in September 2003 filed a federal lawsuit against the county over the display on behalf of John Doe, an anonymous Barrow County resident.

Last month, the county agreed to remove the display and U.S. District Judge William O'Kelley ordered the county to pay $150,000 in legal fees by today.

The county must also pay John Doe $1 in damages.

Since the county is stuck with the $150,000 tab, it will take a year's worth of property taxes from 255 families to cover the cost, according to calculations based on the county's 2004 millage and a house valued at $100,000.

Commissioner Bill Brown hung the display in the courthouse in 2002.

However, it was a year before the ACLU filed the lawsuit against the county on John Doe's behalf.

In the wake of the court settlement, someone removed the Ten Commandments display either July 18 or 19, but county officials won't say who.

Under the July 18 order signed by Judge O'Kelley, Barrow County cannot hang similar displays on public property.


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