ACLU Sues to Challenge Ten Commandments at Grand Junction City Hall
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
April 16, 2001
In a lawsuit filed today in federal district court in Denver, the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Colorado (ACLU) charged that the City of Grand Junction unconstitutionally promotes religion by displaying a granite Ten Commandments monument in a prominent location at the entrance to City Hall.
"The Constitution requires that the government remain neutral toward religious doctrine," said Sue Armstrong, ACLU Executive Director. "Just as the government cannot interfere with the free exercise of religion, it is also forbidden to promote or endorse religion. Grand Junction impermissibly endorses and promotes this monument's religious message."
"There is no doubt that the message of this monument is primarily religious," said Jay Baker, of the Denver firm of Bjork, Lindley, Danielson & Baker, who filed the lawsuit as an ACLU volunteer cooperating attorney. "The monument advocates believing in God; believing in only one God; keeping the Sabbath holy; and foregoing the worship of idols. The Constitution guarantees individuals the right to embrace or reject such religious precepts, and it forbids the government from promoting them."
"The First Amendment protects religious liberty, and because of that protection, thousands of distinct religious denominations are flourishing in our country," said Mark Silverstein, ACLU Legal Director. "Many of those groups do not share the majority Jewish and Christian view that the Commandments are a sacred text. By promoting the religious message of the Ten Commandments, Grand Junction tells non-believers that they are outsiders. The First Amendment forbids the government from sending that religiously-based message of exclusion."
The lawsuit comes after months of discussion in Grand Junction. The plaintiffs, five local residents who object to their city's display of a religious symbol, first sought the ACLU's help last fall. They asked the organization to hold off on a lawsuit, however, while they tried to persuade the city council to donate the monument to a church.
News of the group's efforts — and the possibility of an ACLU lawsuit — surfaced in the local press in February, unleashing a storm of controversy in the Western Slope community. According to press reports, the City Attorney and at least four members of the council acknowledged that the City would lose in court. The local ministerial alliance mobilized. So did the local chapter of the Christian Coalition, which announced that its national legal arm, the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) would provide free lawyers to defend the monument. A March 6 public hearing in the city council chambers took on the air of a revival meeting, complete with fire-and-brimstone rhetoric and an overflow standing-room-only crowd of 400 that packed in to urge the City to keep the monument. Letters, emails, and telephone calls registered overwhelming community opposition to moving the monument.
In a 5-2 vote March 19, the council voted to keep the monument. In an effort to avoid a lawsuit, the City immediately adorned the Ten Commandments with a "disclaimer" that states that the display "is not meant to endorse any particular system of religious belief." The council also decided to add an undecided number of as-yet-unspecified monuments to create a "cultural heritage plaza."
According to the lawsuit, the disclaimer and the city's resolution "were motivated by the threat of imminent litigation" and "were influenced by statements from the religious majority whose sacred beliefs are etched in the granite monument."
"The City's last-minute disclaimer is a transparent ploy to preserve the City's religious monument," Silverstein said. "The disclaimer is not enough to avoid a violation of the Constitution."
Plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Christian v. City of Grand Junction, are Kathryn Christian, Jill Havens, Jeff Basinger, Clare Boulanger, and Sarah Swedberg, all residents of Grand Junction, as well as the ACLU itself. In addition to Baker and Silverstein, the legal team includes ACLU cooperating attorney Neville Woodruff of Grand Junction.