Ten Commandments case

Pulaski pays $230,000 in fees in 10 Commandments case

Appeals ran up the tab

bestep@herald-leader.comSeptember 10, 2011 

A sign in a frame that once held a copy of the Ten Commandments in the lobby of the Pulaski County Courthouse explains why the copy of the biblical laws were removed.

BILL ESTEP | STAFF

SOMERSET — Pulaski County has paid $231,662 to cover its share of costs in a legal battle the county lost over attempts to post copies of the Ten Commandments in the courthouse.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky received the check Friday, according to a news release.

The county fiscal court took out a loan to get the money.

The payment ends Pulaski County's part in a court fight that lasted more than 11 years, in which a federal judge ruled that Pulaski and McCreary counties' posting copies of the Commandments violated the U.S. Constitution.

The counties owed the ACLU a total of more than $460,000 in legal fees and interest because of the organization's successful legal challenge to the displays.

McCreary County has not yet paid its share of the judgment. Its payment will be somewhat higher than Pulaski County's because interest continues to accrue on its portion of the debt.

McCreary County Judge-Executive Doug Stephens said Friday that the fiscal court plans to borrow money from a local bank to pay the judgment.

Stephens said the county is waiting to find out what the payoff would be on either Oct. 1 or Oct. 15 so it can finalize the loan.

Stephens said Pulaski County plans to pay off its loan this fiscal year, but McCreary County will have to pay off its loan over a longer period.

It's not yet clear how McCreary County will make the payments, or whether doing so will require layoffs or cutbacks in other services, he said.

McCreary County is relatively poor and is already pressed to cover the cost of services to residents.

"It's very much a hardship," said Stephens, who was not in office when previous local officials authorized putting up a copy of the Ten Commandments in the courthouse.

Stephens said he and Pulaski County Judge-Executive Barty Bullock plan to send a letter to national religious organizations, such as Focus on the Family and the Trinity Broadcasting Network, in hopes of getting donations to help cover the counties' loan payments.

"Obviously, it's going to be better if the debt is paid off with donations rather than taxpayer dollars," Stephens said.

David Carr, a Christian broadcaster in Somerset, has been raising money for the Ten Commandments fund through his King of Kings radio network, Stephens said, and individuals and churches also have donated.

One woman in McCreary County contributed a quilt she made to give away in a drawing for people who had donated, Stephens said. The county has received about $20,000 in donations, Stephens said, but that leaves more than $200,000 to borrow.

The legal case involving McCreary and Pulaski counties started in 1999, when officials in both counties authorized posting stand-alone copies of the Ten Commandments in the courthouses in Whitley City and Somerset.

The ACLU and some residents sued, arguing that the displays were an improper government endorsement of a particular religious doctrine and a violation of the First Amendment.

U.S. District Judge Jennifer Coffman ordered the copies of the biblical laws taken down.

The counties later added copies of other documents, including the Declaration of Independence and a print of a blind Lady Justice, in an attempt to illustrate some of the foundations of American law and government.

The counties argued that those actions answered the ACLU's complaint, but federal appeals judges ruled that putting up the additional documents was a sham to cover the "blatantly religious" motive for putting up the Ten Commandments in the first place.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that the motive for putting up the displays was religious.

However, the counties continued appealing aspects of the case until earlier this year, when the nation's high court declined to hear the case again.

Those additional appeals ran up the legal bill.

Many residents in both counties supported the effort to try to post the Ten Commandments.

"It is unfortunate that despite having lost before every court to consider this case, county officials nonetheless prolonged this litigation for more than a decade, thereby increasing the financial burden on taxpayers," William Sharp, an ACLU attorney, said in a statement.

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