FFRF said Camden County has taken at least one step towards constitutional compliance by removing the bible quote poster from public space, but the concern surrounding the religious 9/11 memorial persists.
Not one but two national advocacy groups representing opposing views on freedom of religion have joined the discussion with differing opinions on the right of Camden County officials to display images, one referencing a bible verse, the other displaying a cross. The images have hung in the Camden County Courthouse and gone unnoticed for years but could now become the focus of an ongoing legal battle.
First Liberty Institute, the latest organization to offer an opinion, supports Camden County officials’ rights to display two images that have been deemed a violation of the constitution under the First Amendment by the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
First Liberty suggested the county disregard FFRF’s unfounded and inaccurate demand letter.
First Liberty is a national organization dedicated to defending religious freedom. The Freedom From Religion Foundation, also a national organization, advocates for the separation of church and state.
FFRF raised the issue of the images after receiving a complaint from a resident who visited the courthouse to cast an absentee ballot.
One of the images in question hangs in Camden County Clerk Rowland Todd’s office with a flag in the background of 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 displayed in a hallway. The scene memorializes the 9/11 attacks.
In a letter sent to the county, FFRF Legal Fellow Colin McNamara asked that the religious displays be removed, “since they represent an unconstitutional endorsement of religion.” McNamara cited in the letter the foundation’s position that the county “cannot fulfill its mission of serving all members of the community while also sponsoring a message that excludes minority religious and nonreligious citizens who represent 30 percent of the population.”
Todd did not remove the image but has since moved the flag photo with the bible verse to a private work space. The image is no longer prominently displayed in the office where the public conducts business.
In response, FFRF said Camden County has taken at least one step towards constitutional compliance by removing the bible quote poster from public space, but the concern surrounding the religious 9/11 memorial persists.
“FFRF’s position remained unchanged,” McNamara stated. “For as long as the cross painting remains in place, Camden County remains in violation of the Establishment Clause.”
The Camden County Commission has declined to comply with FFRF’s request. Instead, they sought legal advice and held a meeting to allow residents an opportunity to voice their opinions. Of those who turned out for the meeting, no one stepped forward to oppose the images being in the courthouse.
In a letter to the county commission, First Liberty stated they encouraged officials to disregard the FFRF letter, and to leave both displays in place for the benefit of Camden County citizens and employees alike. “Our review of both displays in question reveals no Establishment Clause violation,” according to First Liberty counsel Michael Berry.
Berry said based on the information available, it appears the courthouse displays a painting depicting the 9/11 Memorial in New York City, which commemorates the terrorist attacks that occurred on Sept. 11, 2001. As is well known, the 9/11 Memorial consists primarily of two steel beams recovered from the rubble by rescue workers in the aftermath of the terrorist attack. The two beams incidentally form the shape of a cross that is approximately 17 feet in height.
In 2014, a federal appeals court ruled that the 9/11 Memorial does not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution. American Atheists, Inc. v. Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, 760 F.3d 227 (2d Cir. 2014). The court stated that the 9/11 Memorial stands “as a symbol of hope and healing for all persons.” Clearly, if the 9/11 Memorial itself is permissible under the Constitution, then a painting depicting that same Memorial is certainly also permissible, he said.
First Liberty’s opinion also supports the displaying of the patriotic image in Todd’s office.