The Arkansas affiliate of the ACLU has filed its promised lawsuit against the 10 Commandments monument recently re-erected on the Capitol grounds.
UPDATE: The Freedom from Religion Foundation also announced it too had filed a separate federal lawsuit against the monument.
In the ACLU suit, four women who bike and walk past the monument regularly — Donna Cave, Judith Lansky, Pat Piazza, and Susan Russell — say they are offended by the promotion of religion on the Capitol grounds. The lawsuit argues it is a violation of the establishment clause for the state to promote the Christian religion over others.
Here’s the Freedom from Religion lawsuit. The plaintiffs in it include FFRF, the American Humanist Association, the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers, as well as seven individual plaintiffs who are religious and nonreligious citizens of Arkansas — Joan Dietz, Gale Stewart, Rabbi Eugene Levy, Rev. Victor H. Nixon, Teresa Grider and Walter Riddick.
Sen. Jason Rapert, a preacher who sponsored legislation to allow the monument, claims it is about the historical basis of law. The ACLU lawsuit details, through Rapert’s own words and those of others, who the establishment of this monument and rejection of others is in fact all about declaring primacy for the Christian religion. Funding primarily came from evangelical churches and they were prominently represented at monument unveiling. It was paid with private donations, including four security posts erected because the first one was knocked down by a driver who’d destroyed a similar monument in Oklahoma. He remains under hospitalization at the State Hospital.
Other groups have threatened to sue over the statue, including one group denied the ability to erect a Satanist monument. The court record is mixed on such monuments, though generally unfavorable toward them. Texas is an exception, but a challenge there failed because of a challenger’s wait of decades to file an objection. That monument went up as an emblem of a Bible-based movie.
Here’s the ACLU lawsuit. It’s good reading. It asks that the statue be declared unconstitutional and removed and a court
The law that enabled the statue provides that a private group that promotes more religion in government and public life can represent the state. I’ve asked for comment from Attorney General Leslie Rutledge.
UPDATE: Rapert has issued a typical statement asserting the challengers are anti-American and abridging HIS constitutional rights.
The ACLU release:
Representing four Arkansas women, the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas today filed a lawsuit in federal court asserting that a monument of the Ten Commandments on the grounds of the State Capitol violates the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty. The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas and asks the court to declare the monument unconstitutional.
“The courts have been clear that the First Amendment protects religious freedom and prohibits the government from engaging in this kind of overt and heavy-handed religious favoritism,” said Rita Sklar, ACLU of Arkansas executive director. “By endorsing a specific set of religious beliefs on government property, Arkansas politicians are violating the constitutional rights of the people they’re supposed to serve.”
The plaintiffs in the case are Donna Cave, Judith Lansky, Pat Piazza, and Susan Russell. All four are members of a walking and cycling club in Little Rock whose regular routes include the grounds of the Arkansas State Capitol, where they are now confronted with the Ten Commandments monument. Three of the women identify as agnostic and one as atheist.
“This monument is a government-sponsored religious shrine, and it sends a divisive message that the state endorses a specific religious doctrine to the exclusion of all others,” said plaintiff Donna Cave, a retired teacher who is agnostic. “As someone who is agnostic, this endorsement by the state of one religious belief over my own makes me feel like a second-class citizen. Government officials shouldn’t be in the business of dividing people along religious lines — they should represent everyone.”
The lawsuit asserts that the monument on public property at the Arkansas State Capitol is government speech that violates the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and requests that the court declare the display unconstitutional.
“Religious liberty is the right of every American to follow their beliefs without the government butting in,” said Sklar. “When government officials take sides in matters of religion, they alienate those who don’t subscribe to that particular set of beliefs and undermine everyone’s right to religious freedom. Arkansas politicians are once again using public property to promote their personal religious beliefs at the cost of Arkansans’ fundamental rights.”
Citing the First Amendment, which states that the government “shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” the lawsuit seeks to have the monument removed from the capitol grounds and the Arkansas Ten Commandments Monument Display Act declared unconstitutional.
From the Freedom from Religion release:
“The state of Arkansas has erected an enormous religious monolith on government property in blatant disregard for the First Amendment to the United States Constitution,” the suit states. “The new monolith — a 6-and-one-third-foot tall Ten Commandments statue — stands prominently on the state Capitol grounds.”
The suit points out that the Assembly went ahead with its plans in spite of objections to the placement of the Ten Commandments monument at public hearings by religious adherents of many stripes, as well as nonbelievers, who emphasized that the monument violated both the U.S. and the state Constitutions.
The lawsuit, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas, seeks a declaration that the monument is unconstitutional, an injunction directing the defendant to remove the monument, and costs and attorneys’ fees. The state could be on the hook for a substantial amount of money when it loses the case. Earlier this year, a city in New Mexico was ordered to pay $700,000 in attorneys’ fees after unsuccessfully defending a Ten Commandments monument in court. FFRF has also prevailed in recent years in two cases that succeeded in removing Ten Commandments monuments from Pennsylvania schools.
“The state of Arkansas has no business telling citizens what religious practices and beliefs to engage in,” says FFRF Senior Counsel Patrick Elliott. “This Ten Commandments monument violates the rights of conscience of citizens.”
The ACLU case was assigned to Judge Kristine Baker. The Freedom from Religion suit went to Judge Jay Moody. I’m guessing they’ll be consolidated at some point. The ACLU says counsel in the two cases
The secretary of state, a defendant, declined comment. The governor’s office (he signed the legislation) and the attorney general also have declined comment so far.