A federal district judge on Tuesday denied a motion to dismiss a lawsuit filed by a Wisconsin-based group against a school district in Westmoreland County regarding its display of a Ten Commandments monument.
The Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) sued both the New Kensington-Arnold School District and the Connellsville Area School District over displays of the Ten Commandments posted outside schools in each district. The New Kensington-Arnold suit was filed first, and there is a decision pending on a motion to dismiss the Connellsville suit.
FFRF, a national group that works to defend the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, is a plaintiff in both suits. Additional people in both districts — mainly identified by pseudonyms — are also listed. Both suits seek to declare the monuments, which were donated decades ago by local chapters of the Fraternal Order of Eagles, unconstitutional.
The FFRF said the monuments are religious in nature and cannot be posted outside of a public place.
The arguments to dismiss the cases filed on behalf of the school districts were similar, specifically referring to the 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Van Orden v. Perry.
That ruling held that the Ten Commandments monument on the grounds of a government building in Texas did not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
That clause essentially says that the government cannot endorse a specific religion.
“I am reluctant to comment with a somewhat similar motion pending before the same court, albeit with a different judge, however, we will be reviewing the New Kensington decision with great interest,” said Christopher Stern, solicitor for the Connellsville Area School District.
In his response to New Kensington’s motion to dismiss, U.S. District Judge Terrence F. McVerry wrote, “Perhaps the court may later find the plaintiff’s position untenable and their requested relief unwarranted, but a fair reading of the complaint at this stage of the proceedings leads to the conclusion that the factual allegations provided by the plaintiffs extend beyond conclusory assertions to at least having stated a facially plausible claim.”
McVerry outlined a number of legal tests that judges use to determine whether the Establishment Clause has been violated, acknowledging the uniquely difficult nature of determining which tests to use in which cases.
“The court endeavors to provide the parties with some degree of clarity as we move forward,” he wrote.
McVerry explained that the court’s decision to deny the motion to dismiss recognized that the plaintiffs factually addressed several legal tests in the initial complaint, sufficiently enough for the case to move forward.