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Nine years ago, as a newcomer to the state of Kentucky and a new resident of Shelbyville, I went to the Shelby County Courthouse to get a Kentucky driver’s license. On the wall of that office was a large standalone framed display of the Ten Commandments.
To understand my reaction to seeing this, one must take the view of 1) a person who is non-religious and 2) a person who had at that time a budding awareness of issues of separation of church and state.
In a few words, I felt a sense of discomfort, of “other-ness” and of disenfranchisement from what was about to become my new community.
I also sensed that it was wrong for any tax-supported institution to openly endorse a particular set of religious tenets in this manner.
I already knew that being non-religious in the “Bible belt” would put me in the minority, but I wasn’t prepared to have my new county government tell me so. I have to admit that the experience made me apprehensive about the people I was going to meet as a new resident. I left the courthouse quite discouraged.
Before I go on, I would like to point out that one need not be “non-religious” to have a problem with seeing the Ten Commandments posted by government entities. The list of national religious groups who often file “amicus” briefs in lawsuits challenging these displays includes the Baptist Joint Committee, the Disciples of Christ, the Interfaith Alliance, the Unitarian Universalists, the American Jewish Congress, the Hindu American Foundation and others.
The experience in the courthouse in 2002 bothered me enough that in 2003 I wrote a letter to The Sentinel-Newsin which I discussed several of the reasons why posting the Ten Commandments in a government building was not only wrong, but a Constitutional violation as well.
After my letter appeared, someone mentioned to me that I might have some negative experiences as a result. I started feeling quite nervous about my letter, not knowing the community well enough to gauge their reaction.
That’s when I received a phone call from a man identifying himself as a local pastor. I prepared myself for a scolding or even a threat.
But the pastor told me that my letter to the paper was absolutely correct. He said that this was an important separation of church and state issue, and that the display was wrong. We had a nice chat and I was quite relieved.
I didn’t totally get off the hook, though. Another man decided to leave a message on my answering machine because he felt it was his duty to tell me that I was going to a very hot place in the afterlife.
However, the display remained. (There is also another smaller display on the wall next to the County Clerk’s office).
Since then I have made a successful effort to become involved in Shelbyville/Shelby County through several volunteering venues. I have come to know the people involved in government and in local civic groups, and found my first anticipated impressions to be in error. The people I have met and work with have been friendly, welcoming and supportive, and I continue to enjoy my relationships with them.
In 2007, it became apparent that someone else in the county was also bothered by the Ten Commandments display. The Kentucky ACLU sent a letter to the Circuit Court Clerk saying that the display had “come to our attention,” and they were making a “respectful request” that it be removed. Nothing happened.
Two winters ago, I went to renew my license, and there stood the display, all alone on the wall in the same spot as always. This time instead of feeling disenfranchised, I felt frustrated and annoyed.
Why had these people, who I have come to know and admire, allowed this to remain when they know at the very least that it is against the law?
In February of this year, the Supreme Court denied another petition from McCreary and Pulaski counties in Kentucky to allow their displays to remain. These counties tried to disguise their standalone Ten Commandment displays within a “Foundations of American Law” context.
Shelby County’s Ten Commandments displays continue to be “standalone,” which make them an obvious violation.
I have extensively researched the Ten Commandments’ claimed relationship to the history of our country’s founding, and the claims of them being a “foundation of American law.” These arguments are often cited as a defense for posting these displays. I could write a nice long column on why both claims are false. But I won’t do that here.
What keeps coming back to me is how I felt on that very first day in the courthouse driver’s license office, which is the heart and the essence of this issue.
The display of the Ten Commandments is illegal in our government buildings. But more than that, in a non-theocratic secular democracy whose government is of allthe people, it is simply wrong.
And so I am asking the County Clerk and the Circuit Court Clerk to remove all the Ten Commandments displays from their offices.
I am also asking my community to support me in this request. It’s the right thing to do, and it’s time to do it.
Linda Allewalt lives in Shelbyville.