This column by ACRU Senior Fellow Robert Knight was published February 25, 2013 on The Washington Times website.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has lost its six-year campaign to tear down a Ten Commandments monument at the Dixie County, Florida, courthouse.
They've even lost their usual extortion money for harassing a community.
The case fell apart after the plaintiff, an anonymous North Carolina man who had planned to come to Dixie County to live in his RV, decided not to move there after all.
Senior U.S. District Judge Maurice M. Paul dismissed the case without prejudice on Feb. 13, because the plaintiff lacked standing. The ACLU could re-file if an actual resident is willing to buck the strong tide of sentiment in the county. For now, Mr. "Heel on Wheels" [not his actual nickname] has sunk the ship.
In February 2007, the ACLU filed a lawsuit naming "John Doe" as the plaintiff. Judge Paul ruled in 2011 that the monument was an establishment of religion, and awarded $130,000 in legal fees to the ACLU, which had tried to finger the taxpayers for $160,000. He then stayed his order, and was reversed by the 11th Circuit. When the plaintiff pulled out, it blew up the whole thing, including the ACLU's award of legal fees.
Harry Mihet, an attorney at Liberty Counsel, which represented Dixie County, found the outcome pleasing: "We went from an order that 'the monument goes and you have to pay $130,000 to the ACLU,' to 'the monument stays, and the ACLU has to pay a total of $3,600,'" Mr. Mihet told me.
For the 75-year-old "John Doe," the dismissal's bright spot is that he won't have to leave North Carolina's barbecue country for less certain barbecue conditions in Florida. He made the decision not to move upon learning that his identity would be revealed if the case proceeded. The initial ruling had triggered a pro-monument rally of 1,500 in nearby Cross City, whose population is 1,700, according to Ocala.com. So far, the ACLU has not insisted that Cross City change its name.
Mr. "Doe" apparently figured, according to the ACLU, that his new neighbors would welcome him not with their own version of home-cooked barbecue but with something a little stronger. No word on whether the good citizens of Dixie County will countersue for defamation, claiming that "John Doe" and the ACLU have slyly caricatured them as violent half-wits right out of the movie Deliverance.
"The ACLU got caught with its hands in the constitutional cookie jar," Mr. Mihet said in a press release. "In getting kicked out of court, the ACLU has learned that it cannot impose its San Francisco values upon a small town in Florida, using a phantom member from North Carolina."
Liberty Counsel argued that not only did the plaintiff lack standing but that "the case presents a Free Speech, not an Establishment Clause, issue. The Open Forum policy allows private citizens to erect private historical displays at their own expense."
The five-foot-tall, 12,000-pound monument was erected at the top of the courthouse steps in 2006 after Joe H. Anderson Jr., chairman and founder of Lake City-based road builder Anderson Columbia, purchased it for $20,000.
Joe Anderson is another story. Not only has he funded several other Ten Commandments monuments in Florida, but also a "revival" mobile display. It's parked somewhere until legal threats arise, and then it takes off down the road. "He's having some fun with the ACLU," Mr. Mihet said.
"We're just getting started," Mr. Anderson, 73, told me on Friday, saying that he had several requests from other counties to erect Ten Commandment monuments. "We got a bunch of them up right now, already built, ready to go."
After the initial ruling, Mathew D. Staver, founder of Liberty Counsel and Dean of Liberty University School of Law, commented:
"Dixie County is not establishing a religion by allowing a private individual to place a monument in a location where similar monuments may be placed. Dixie County should be applauded, not sued, for fostering open and robust speech in a public forum. Rather than take advantage of the forum, the ACLU prefers to censor speech with which it disagrees."
Ever since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2005 in favor of a Ten Commandments monument alongside other historical items at the Texas state capitol, the ACLU has had a tougher time ripping God's directives out of the ground. Oklahoma just installed a set of privately financed Ten Commandments on the state capitol grounds in November.
Hiram Saffer, director of litigation for Texas-based Liberty Institute, which will represent Oklahoma in any legal challenge, said the ACLU has not yet issued a challenge, but is actively trying to tear down crosses such as the one atop the Mt. Soledad Veterans Memorial in San Diego. In that case, in which Liberty Institute is representing the Memorial Association, the U.S. Supreme Court denied a petition to reverse a Ninth Circuit order to take down the cross. All parties are awaiting a "remedy" fashioned by the lower courts.
"The ACLU tried [and failed] to kick the Memorial Association out of the case," Mr. Saffer said. "We suspect it was because they wanted to cut a deal with the Obama Administration."
In King, N.C., Americans United for the Separation of Church and State is suing to have a veterans memorial remove a Christian flag and a statue of a soldier kneeling at the grave of a comrade. How do we know it's a grave? Because of the cross. Liberty Institute is representing the American Legion.
While things get sorted out in the courts, wouldn't it be interesting if Florida's Mr. Anderson took his mobile Ten Commandment display on the road, up to North Carolina? He might run into "John Doe" and his RV.
Now, that would be a race to remember, and I wouldn't bet against the Ten Commandments.