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Federal Court Dismisses Atheist Group's Suit Involving Ten Commandments

Chalk another one up for religious liberty. (WP Paarz via Flickr)

A federal district court entered a judgment in favor of Liberty Counsel's client, Levy County, dismissing a lawsuit brought by a national atheist group claiming that the Ten Commandments monument next to the Levy County courthouse violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

In American Atheists, Inc. v. Levy County, the court granted Liberty Counsel's motion for summary judgment on the grounds that the atheist plaintiffs had no standing to bring the lawsuit because they were not injured by the presence of a monument with which they disagreed. The court also concluded that there was no evidence that Levy County's monument guidelines were created to favor religious monuments over secular monuments.

In 2009, Levy County created neutral guidelines for local residents and groups to place their own monuments in an area next to the courthouse, commemorating people, events or ideas that have significantly influenced American or Florida law, or Levy County. These monuments would join a veterans' monument placed by a local veterans group in 1996. After the guidelines were in place, a local crisis pregnancy center applied to place the Ten Commandments monument in the forum. Given the long-recognized influence of the Ten Commandments in the development of American law, the County approved the monument under the guidelines, and it was placed in early 2010.

Four years later, a local atheist group applied to place a monument commemorating American Atheists, Inc. and its founder Madalyn Murray O'Hair, but also disparaging religion with numerous out-of-context quotes commonly argued by atheists to undermine America's religious heritage. The proposed monument's content, however, did not comply with the County's neutral guidelines or the requirement that monument subjects commemorate people, events or ideas that have significantly influenced American or Florida law, or Levy County. The County denied the application for its numerous deficiencies under the guidelines. The County also denied an amended application that did not correct the deficiencies of the original.

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In June 2015, the local atheist group's leader, backed by the national group American Atheists, Inc., sued the County in federal court seeking removal of the Ten Commandments monument or forcing the County to allow the atheists' noncompliant monument. Two years of discovery, however, have shown that there is no injury under the Constitution—the local atheist plaintiff never wanted an atheist monument, but merely sought to remove the Ten Commandments.

"We are pleased the court dismissed the suit," said Mat Staver, Founder and Chairman of Liberty Counsel. "The atheist organization never intended to display its own legitimate monument but rather sought to remove a monument that complies with the public forum guidelines. The Ten Commandments monument is the private speech of the group that placed it in Levy County's public forum, and even if it were government speech, it is proper to recognize the influence of the Ten Commandments on American law and government," said Staver.

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