Connellsville school to move now-veiled tribute to Ten Commandments

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Some people in the small Fayette County town of Connellsville misjudged a 55-year-old monument at the junior high -- if they saw it at all.

Several thought the 5-foot-tall slab, located outdoors near the auditorium, was a war memorial. Others, including a former teacher at the school, didn't know it was there.

But somebody noticed, enough to contact a Pittsburgh law firm last month and demand the school district remove the Ten Commandments.

They said it violates the constitutional requirement of a separation between church and state.

Now the marble monument, which district superintendent Dan Lujetic likened to the stone tablets in the 1956 Charlton Heston movie of the same name, is covered by plywood and will have a new home off school property in the next few weeks.

"It's just peculiar that this is happening all of the sudden," Mr. Lujetic said.

In early August, the district received a letter from Washington, D.C.-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State, citing related Supreme Court cases and demanding it remove the monument, Mr. Lujetic said.

Another note arrived at the end of the month, this time from Steele Schneider law firm, representing a parent of a student in the district who had contacted Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation.

Attorney Marcus B. Schneider described the mother as nonreligious but said she did not wish to be identified. Their letter asserted that the monument is in violation of the First Amendment's Establishment Clause.

"We're not looking for a fight," Mr. Schneider said. "We're just looking for respect of the First Amendment."

They asked the school district to remove the slab by Sept. 7. That will take a few more weeks, though, because the monument has footers buried deep in the ground.

For the first few days after they received the second letter, the district shielded the Ten Commandments with garbage bags, Mr. Lujetic said, but people tore them down overnight.

Now, a piece of plywood bound with metal strips covers the front. Nothing permanent is attached to the monument.

Still, according to school district solicitor Christopher Stern, many wondered, "What Ten Commandments monument?"

When the Fraternal Order of Eagles donated the monument in 1957 -- the building was then the high school -- the rules were meant to be seen.

"I'm told by those who've been around a lot longer than me that the location was chosen so students would see it coming from the student parking lot," Mr. Stern said.

Today, it's the junior high, and that lot is for staff. Students rarely see the monument, he said.

"To be honest, I didn't know that's what they were," he said, noting that he drives by the monument twice monthly for school board meetings and thought it was a World War II memorial.

"I didn't even know it was there," said school Director Thomas Dolde, a retired physical education and health teacher who taught in it when it was the high school.

Clearly, some people knew about it.

"My phone is ringing off the hook with people that want to fight this," school board President Jon Detwiler said. "It's not really the worst thing in the world to have our kids reading."

That's a costly fight, though, said Ira Weiss, a municipal lawyer and Pittsburgh Public Schools solicitor.

"Litigation cases like this can be very expensive, and the money you spend doesn't pay for one textbook, one computer, one pencil or one tablet," he said. "The point is, it is a losing proposition for school districts."

The board will meet in private next week to discuss where to move the monument. Mr. Stern said it will go to a private entity, which could display it in a more prominent place.

It may actually be more visible than ever before, he said.

"More than a few people have commented that it's kind of a blessing in disguise."

neigh_washington

Molly Born: mborn@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1944.


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