Although it may not be the answer the foundation was hoping for but after seeking legal counsel, at least for now, county officials don't intend to budge on their decision to leave the images in the courthouse.
Camden County is responding to a complaint from the Freedom From Religion Foundation which alleges two different images displayed in the courthouse are a violation of the First Amendment and need to be removed.
Although it may not be the answer the foundation was hoping for but after seeking legal counsel, at least for now, county officials don’t intend to budge on their decision to leave the images in the courthouse.
One of the images in question hangs in the Camden County Clerk’s office with a flag in the background and a verse that says, “Greater love hath no one than this, that one would lay their life down for another.”
The second image is a depiction of a cross with a child and firefighter looking on. It is located in a hallway. The scene is a well-recognized image memorializing the 9/11 attacks.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation promotes the constitutional principle of separation of state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism. Based in Wisconsin, the foundation reports a membership of 32,200. It is a non-profit, tax-exempt, educational organization under Internal Revenue Code 501(c)(3), according to information on their website.
According to county officials, the complaint was lodged late last year on behalf of a Camden County resident who came in for voting information. The foundation notified the county of the complaint by letter and included photos of the images.
In the letter to county clerk Rowland Todd, the foundation said the images represent an “unconstitutional government endorsement of religion and needed to be removed”.
But, according to county officials, they don’t plan to remove the images from the courthouse.
The image in Todd’s office has been moved to an area that is not in plain view. It will remain on the wall but is now in a work area. Todd said the image is meant to honor those who serve and with the quote from John 15:13.
As far as the image in the hallway, Presiding Commissioner Greg Hasty and Associate Commissioner Don Williams agree they will not be removing the image from the courthouse.
“The commission has received overwhelming public support for the painting. Additionally, we have met with the county attorney and we feel we are on firm legal ground,” Williams said. “The Freedom From Religion Foundation has expressed their opinion that Camden County is violating the separation of church and state because the 9/11 painting hangs in a courthouse hallway and county employees have expressions of their faith within their individual workspaces. The commission does not agree.”
Williams said the painting is a reproduction of an actual physical monument that is currently on display in New York. In a failed legal challenge to the monument, U.S District Judge Deborah Batts ruled that the monument serves an "historical and secular" purpose.
Williams said Camden County believes their 9/11 painting serves the same purpose, helping to tell the story of how Americans - and especially first responders - coped with the terrible death and devastation of that attack.
“Religious freedom is enshrined within our constitution. It's a fundamental human right. Religious observance, the right of every American to live out their faith, must be accommodated and protected by government to the greatest practical extent,” he said. “As an elected official, we must be careful to not promote any specific religion. On the other hand, as county commissioners, it is our responsibility to protect the rights of the 300-plus county employees to express their faith within their own workspaces. The places within a government building where religious expression is and is not legally permissible is laid out fairly clearly by the U.S. Department of Labor. We feel we are safely within those guidelines.”
Although the images on display inside the building are drawing the criticism of the organization, county officials confirmed that there have been no complaints by the group or anyone else about the manger depiction on display during on the holidays on the grounds of the courthouse.