School District Rolls Over for Atheist Group After 1 Letter, Removes Historic Plaque Installed in 1927


An atheist group has succeeded in getting a nearly century-old plaque featuring the Ten Commandments removed from an Ohio school, a local paper has reported.

You’re probably not surprised, if you follow these sorts of things at all, to learn that the culprit is the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

According to the Times-Reporter of New Philadelphia, Ohio, the plaque in Welty Middle School was removed following one letter from the Wisconsin-based atheist group after the district thought that “the ‘costs’ of defending are substantial” enough that they won’t be pursuing the case.

“In an email dated June 19, Brian J. DeSantis, a Cleveland attorney representing New Philadelphia City Schools, wrote to attorney Christopher Line of the Freedom From Religion Foundation to inform him that the plaque had been removed,” the paper reported.

The move was in response to an April 12 letter in which the FFRF said that a parent had complained about the plaque — which was near the school’s auditorium — and that it was promoting religion.

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“The group said it told the district that it is well-settled law that public schools may not advance or endorse religion,” the Times-Reporter noted.

While New Philadelphia Schools Superintendent David Brand said that he was unhappy with the FFRF’s approach, he said that the district had no other choice than to remove the plaque.

Do you think that the school district should have fought this case in court?

“Rather than meeting with the District to begin a dialogue, FFRF sent a letter from its office in Wisconsin and then used the local media to further the issue,” he told the paper.

“Since receiving the letter, the District has gathered more information, listened to interested community members, and reviewed its options. As background, the plaque was a gift from the Class of 1926 to the District in 1927. To the best of its knowledge, the District believes the plaque has been displayed in the District ever since. With over 90 years on display, the plaque is recognized as part of the tradition and history of New Philadelphia City Schools.

“While the plaque is a well-established and historic piece of New Philadelphia City Schools history, the laws of the United States are pretty clear regarding the display of the Ten Commandments in a school setting. To preserve the plaque, the District would need to overturn a U.S. Supreme Court decision from 1980. Additionally, the District would need to become the first public school to successfully defend a Ten Commandments display in a school setting.

“Despite offers from local law professionals to help the district, the ‘costs’ of defending are substantial,” his statement continued.

“In addition to funding multi-year litigation, the District will divert staff, time, and energy from the District’s true purpose — student learning. Even more troubling, if the District’s case is unsuccessful as all other school cases have been, FFRF can seek for the District to pay FFRF’s legal fees, which have in at least one instance, exceeded $900,000.00. Clearly, challenging the issue legally would be an enormous risk and burden to the local taxpayers.”

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And that is usually the FFRF’s game.

What the group does is descend upon a school district. After usually just a single complaint from an individual, they wage a media war against the entity in question. They turn their lawyers loose and — if the entity isn’t inclined toward a protracted court case — get what they want.

The case that Brand is referencing, by the by, is Stone v. Graham. In a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court declared that a Kentucky law that posted a copy of the Ten Commandments in every classroom was in violation of the establishment clause.

This was significantly different, given that it was a statewide initiative versus a single plaque with historical significance, donated to the school long before Stone v. Graham was decided.

One might deduce that this would be significantly different than Stone v. Graham, particularly given that the school isn’t using this to force religion on anyone. Alas, Brand is right — even with donations, the court costs are probably going to be alarmingly high if they’re going to try to fight this.

“The District will review the process to donate the plaque to preserve the history of the 92-year-old Ten Commandments plaque,” Brand wrote.

“Furthermore, rather than engaging FFRF in an action where the community’s resources are at stake, the District will consider filing an amicus brief in a forthcoming case on the matter. While members of the District do not agree with FFRF’s conduct, the District believes acting on its own terms is the most effective way to oppose FFRF and to continue to serve its students.”

As for the FFRF, it is satisfied with the result.

“As far as we’re concerned, this situation is completely resolved,” Line said. “We’re happy that the district did the right thing by taking down this religious promotion.”

It’s curious times we’re living in when doing “the right thing” is caving to a far-off organization that wants to use a small plaque — which is mostly historic in nature — to sue a school and get positive media coverage.

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C. Douglas Golden is a writer who splits his time between the United States and Southeast Asia. Specializing in political commentary and world affairs, he's written for Conservative Tribune and The Western Journal since 2014.
C. Douglas Golden is a writer who splits his time between the United States and Southeast Asia. Specializing in political commentary and world affairs, he's written for Conservative Tribune and The Western Journal since 2014. Aside from politics, he enjoys spending time with his wife, literature (especially British comic novels and modern Japanese lit), indie rock, coffee, Formula One and football (of both American and world varieties).
Morristown, New Jersey
Catholic University of America
Languages Spoken
English, Spanish
Topics of Expertise
American Politics, World Politics, Culture