Religious Plaque on Courthouse Wall Stirs Controversy

January 15, 2001

Source: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

On January 15, 2001, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that Americans United for the Separation of Church and State is demanding that a 50-by-80-inch bronze plaque inscribed with the Ten Commandments and a biblical passage be removed from the Allegheny County Courthouse wall. Representatives of the International Reform Bureau presented the plaque on April 8, 1918. The nonprofit organization says the plaque "violates the First Amendment's establishment clause -- 'Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion ... ' -- the basis for the country's separation of church and state....County Chief Executive Jim Roddey has said the plaque will stay....County Councilman Vince Gastgeb, R-Bethel Park, has introduced a resolution in support of keeping the plaque in place and expects it to pass when it is voted on....There's no indication from news accounts of the time that there was any opposition to the plaque when it was mounted....President Judge John D. Shafer gave the speech of acceptance, saying the country was engaged in a war 'for the maintenance of these ancient principles set forth in the 10 commandments.'...The Rev. Wilbur Fisk Crafts told the audience...'The Ten Commandments are the roots not only of religion but of our civic and social life -- of the family and the government. Never so much as in this war ... do we need to keep law as the alternate of war before our people.'" The plaque went up "decades before the Supreme Court clearly enunciated what is permitted by the First Amendment in a 1947 decision. In Everson v. Board of Education of Ewing, the Supreme Court invoked Thomas Jefferson in stating that the establishment clause of the First Amendment was intended to erect 'a wall of separation between Church and State.' In that case, the court said that the Constitution forbids not only state practices that 'aid one religion ... or prefer one religion over another,' but also those practices that 'aid all religions' and thus endorse or prefer religion over nonreligion. In other words, circa 2000, the wall of separation would automatically negate the possibility of the Ten Commandments on the wall. But in 1918, in a society in which religious expression was still commonplace in schools and in public life, a symbolic merging of bronze religion and stone state would have struck few as an assault on the Constitution."

See also: Interfaith, Civic