Editorials

Religious freedom isn't free: Will anyone pay political price?

Beginning in 1999, fiscal courts in McCreary and Pulaski counties made a series of misguided decisions that now have them trying to figure out how to pay a legal bill of $456,881 plus interest.

Their first bad choice was hanging stand-alone copies of the Ten Commandments in their respective courthouses. After the American Civil Liberties Union and local residents filed a suit correctly challenging the displays as an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment's protection of religious freedom, U.S. District Judge Jennifer Coffman ordered the displays removed.

It could have ended there. But fiscal courts in the two counties just kept making bad decisions. They appealed Coffman's decision all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which also concluded that the displays were unconstitutional because the motive for putting them on the courthouse walls was clearly religious.

Again, it could have ended there — not as cheaply as it could have ended if the two fiscal courts had accepted Coffman's initial decision, but at less cost than the two counties are facing today.

But, no, the fiscal courts tried a new angle, passing new resolutions including the Ten Commandments in displays with other historic documents such as the Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights, which ironically includes the First Amendment they've kept trying to violate for the last dozen years.

That didn't work. The courts weren't fooled. A federal appeals court described the new displays as nothing more than an attempt to cover up the "blatantly religious" motive for the initial stand-alone displays of the Ten Commandments. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal of the lower court's decision.

Case closed for McCreary and Pulaski counties. And because they lost in a civil rights action, they became responsible for the legal fees the ACLU incurred while challenging the unconstitutional displays.

As the Herald-Leader's Bill Estep reported in a May 19 story, finding the money to pay the $456,881 bill plus interest may be tough for the two counties. But find it they must.

And if it ultimately comes from the counties' taxpayers, well, it might be time for voters to consider electing fiscal court members who will make better decisions about issues of religious freedom.

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