Ten Commandments stand at Dixie courthouse, after lawsuit is dismissed
Published: Thursday, February 14, 2013 at 2:23 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, February 14, 2013 at 2:23 p.m.
The six-ton granite monument of the Ten Commandments on top of the Dixie County Courthouse steps is not going anywhere.
On Wednesday, the six-year First Amendment battle over the religious display ended as a federal judge in Gainesville dismissed the American Civil Liberties Union's lawsuit against Dixie County.
The case was not decided on First Amendment grounds. Instead, Senior U.S. District Judge Maurice M. Paul granted the ACLU's motion to voluntarily dismiss the case because its "John Doe" plaintiff was no longer considering moving to Dixie County and therefore had no legal standing to bring a case.
The lawsuit described "Doe" as an ACLU member and North Carolina resident who was contemplating purchasing property in Dixie County, where he and his wife would live in a recreational vehicle hooked up to a septic tank and power supply.
Dixie County Commission Chairman Jason Holifield described the outcome of the case as a "blessing" and a sign that "God is on our side."
The ACLU filed the lawsuit in February 2007, and it has taken a series of twists and turns since then.
After a federal judge ruled in August 2011 that the monument was an unconstitutional violation of separation of church and state, a crowd of some 1,500 gathered in Cross City, a city with a population of roughly 1,700, to rally for keeping the display.
"We're all God-fearing people out here in Dixie County," Holifield said of that show of support.
Last August, a federal appeals court in Atlanta noted inconsistencies in statements "John Doe" made in a deposition and sent the case back to a lower court to determine if he had standing to bring a case.
The ACLU and the Liberty Counsel, a Christian-oriented nonprofit law firm for "religious liberty" that represented Dixie County, had different points of view on Wednesday's dismissal.
"This is the current unfortunate state of our legal system: sometimes up is down, and day is night, and sometimes the courts let local governments get away with thumbing their nose at the Constitution," Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida, said in an email. "That is what has happened in Dixie County."
Simon noted that the only court decision to rule on the merits of the case, the trial court ruling from 2011, declared the display unconstitutional.
In a press statement, Harry Mihet, senior litigation attorney at the Liberty Counsel, described the outcome as a victory for Dixie County residents.
"The ACLU got caught with its hands in the constitutional cookie jar," Mihet said in the statement. "Its prolonged campaign against the good citizens of Dixie County has come to a screeching halt. In getting kicked out of court, the ACLU has learned that it cannot impose its San Francisco values upon a small town in Florida, using a phantom member from North Carolina."
The five-foot-high 12,000-pound monument was set atop the courthouse steps in 2006 after Joe Anderson Jr., the president of Lake City-based road builder Anderson Columbia, purchased the $20,000 display.
The ACLU filed suit in 2007. In court papers, the organization said its "John Doe" plaintiff was not identified by name out of fear of retribution.
In court filings associated with the ACLU motion to dismiss, "John Doe," who is now 75 years old, said he no longer wished to relocate to Dixie County because of changes in the permitting process for placing a recreational vehicle on a lot. That process would require a public notice in a local paper and the placement of signs in the neighborhood where the applicant seeks to locate the RV, according to the court filing.
"Doe" believed that could identify him publicly and make him and his wife "targets of physical violence" and threats.
Simon noted that the case was dismissed without prejudice, which means the monument could be challenged again if a Dixie County resident decides to file a case.
Under an agreement between the ACLU and the Liberty Counsel, the ACLU will pay some $1,300 to cover half the court costs for depositions.