Pennsylvania school returning donated 10 Commandments monument targeted by atheist group

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PITTSBURGH — A Pennsylvania school district is returning a Ten Commandments monument to the fraternal organization that donated it in the 1950s because a federal judge ruled last month that it violates the First Amendment.

Senior U.S. District Judge Terrence McVerry ruled that the monument outside Connellsville Area Junior High School violated the part of the amendment that has been interpreted by courts as barring government from endorsing a particular religion.

But McVerry stopped short of making the school district remove the monument because the family who sued, with help from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, has moved away and could no longer object to it.

Nonetheless, the school board voted Wednesday to return the monument to the Fraternal Order of Eagles. When and how that will be done hasn't been decided.

The judge "already made a determination, in my view, of the constitutionality," school district solicitor Christopher Stern said. As a result, nothing would stop another student from suing to remove the monument again, Stern said.

"We're delighted that reason will prevail and school First Amendment precedent will be followed. Returning these biblical edicts to the Eagles is the rational solution," FFRF co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor said in a statement Thursday.

Local Eagles clubs have donated similar granite monuments around the country, inspired by the 1956 Charlton Heston movie of the same name.

The school's attorneys had argued the monument, adorned with symbols including the American flag and two Stars of David, didn't endorse any particular religion and represented only "moral and historical ideals."

A local group, led by the Rev. Ewing Marietta — a pastor who died three days after McVerry's decision — raised money to place similar monuments on church and other private property in and around the school district. They did so by selling cardboard Ten Commandments cut-outs that people put in their yards.

The group planned to erect 14 such monuments and has placed at least three.

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