The American Civil Liberties Union is suing to force a conservative Christian county in Florida to remove a hulking Ten Commandments monument from the courthouse steps.
The 5-foot-tall (1.50-meter-tall), 6-ton black granite monument stands in front of a building for the courthouse, the elections supervisor office, the tax collector and other public offices in Dixie County. The lawsuit filed in federal court said the monument heaps on its religious message with the inscription "Love God and Keep His Commandments" in large capital letters at its base.
The lawsuit says the monument violates two amendments to the US Constitution because it is not part of a historical display and because the uniquely Christian message of the Ten Commandments on a government building could intimidate people with different religious beliefs.
The Supreme Court has ruled that religious displays are not inherently unconstitutional and must be considered on a case-by-case basis. Last year, the high court allowed the Ten Commandments to be displayed outside the Texas state Capitol but not inside two Kentucky courthouses, where the justices said the displays promoted a religious message.
The Dixie County Commission approved the monument, donated by a local businessman, in January 2006 and it was placed on the courthouse steps in November. Dixie County, a rural county where churches outnumber traffic lights, is on the Gulf Coast north of Tampa, Florida.
"Dixie County is, in effect, thumbing its nose at the Constitution by putting up this display," ACLU attorney Glenn Kayton said.
Dixie County commissioners and the county attorney did not return several phone and e-mail messages left by the Associated Press.
"It's a great thing," Commission Chairman James Valentine told the St. Petersburg Times last month. "I believe in the Ten Commandments. I stand for it. It didn't cost the county a dime."
The suit was filed on behalf of the organization, not an individual plaintiff. The ACLU said it has "half a dozen" members in the north Florida county, but declined to name any residents who might testify in the case.
"This lawsuit is likely to be very unpopular lawsuit within Dixie County," said Florida ACLU Executive Director Howard Simon.
An initial effort to challenge the legality of the Dixie County monument fizzled because activists could not find a resident willing to sue.
The lack of an individual plaintiff may doom the case, said Brian Rooney, a spokesman for the nonprofit Thomas More Law Center, which has offered free legal aid to the Dixie County Commission. Commissioners had not yet asked the center to represent them Wednesday afternoon.
"It's interesting that they don't seem to have a plaintiff," Rooney said. "Once we get involved in the meat of the case, that's the first thing we're going to find out. Is there a case or controversy at all? That's a big hurdle for them to get past."