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TN mayor doubles down on alleged constitutional violation

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The Freedom From Religion Foundation is asking a Tennessee county mayor to reconsider his unwise decision to keep religious inscriptions on its courthouse walls.

FFRF is alarmed by Henderson County’s plan to retain a biblical engraving on its courthouse after receiving a letter in June from FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert advising the county to remove the unconstitutional display. Furthermore, FFRF is discouraged by the county’s intention to exacerbate the violation by adding yet another religious verse to the courthouse.

The current inscription — which reads “Justice and judgement are the habitation of thy throne: Mercy and truth shall go before thy face. Psalms 89:14” — violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, as FFRF informed the city mayor in its original complaint letter. The Supreme Court has held that displays at courthouses that constitute religious endorsement are unconstitutional, and that the First Amendment mandates that the government remain neutral between different religions and between religion and nonreligion.

In his response, Henderson County Mayor Dan Hughes did not address the state/church violation, but instead cited the significant Christian population in the county and informed FFRF that the “community is based on the belief of a true and living God.”

But that is an irrelevant statistic and no justification for the display.

“We respect the individual freedom of conscience of all members of your community, who are free to believe or disbelieve, but the government is not allowed to take sides,” write FFRF Co-Presidents Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker. “Under our Bill of Rights, the minority is protected from the tyranny of the majority. Freedom of conscience is not subject to majority rule.”

FFRF is shocked by such an explicit endorsement of Christianity, which sends an ostracizing message to the community’s nonreligious citizens. “Nones” make up nearly a quarter of Americans and 35 percent of young Americans.

Not only is the inscription an unconstitutional promotion of religion, as FFRF’s co-presidents note, but the idea of a throne on which an authoritarian monarchical deity rules betrays the history and heritage of the United States. The bible verse currently enshrined on the courthouse’s wall speaks of God’s throne. This sends the disturbing message that the judicial seat of county government is also the throne of the Judeo-Christian God.

Henderson Country’s decision forsakes our godless Constitution and the ideals of our secular democracy. County officials have an obligation to adhere to the U.S. Constitution. FFRF is requesting, again, that the city remove the religious display from the courthouse and urges Hughes to honor the rights and consciences of all Henderson County residents who come from a variety of faiths and backgrounds.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 29,000 members and chapters across the country, including more than 350 members in Tennessee and the FFRF East Tennessee Chapter. FFRF’s purpose is to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

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