Archive for Tuesday, December 12, 2000

Judge OKs religious poster

Shawnee County official can post sign

December 12, 2000

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— After calling it "patently frivolous," a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit filed against Shawnee County Treasurer Rita Cline about posters proclaiming "In God We Trust" in her offices.

U.S. District Judge Sam Crow said Topeka residents Mary Lou Schmidt and Darlene Stearns didn't show they suffered any direct injury from the posters, nor could they show Cline had prevented them from exercising free speech rights.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed the lawsuit on behalf of Schmidt and Stearns in August. They complained that the posters represented an attempt by Cline to promote her religious views in violation of the First Amendment.

But in a 32-page ruling issued last week, Crow said the claims were "so lacking in foundation" that he found it difficult to discern the two women's arguments. He ordered them to pay Cline's legal fees.

"The court has no hesitation in finding that this claim is meritless," Crow wrote.

Neither Cline nor the American Center for Law and Justice, which defended her, expressed surprise. The Orlando, Fla., center describes itself as a public interest law firm that fights for religious liberties.

"It's a victory for all the American people," Cline said Monday. "The people in general believe we should be able to display the national motto, just like we're able to fly the American flag."

Schmidt couldn't be reached for comment Monday. Dick Kurtenbach, executive director of the ACLU's Kansas City, Mo., office, said she is on vacation.

Stearns said, "I'm sorry it didn't work out," but referred questions to the ACLU's Kansas City office. She noted she participated in the lawsuit only as a member of the ACLU's regional board.

Kurtenbach declined to comment, saying he hasn't talked to Schmidt about the ruling.

"Until we talk to her, it would be inappropriate for us to make any comment," he said.

Cline began posting a version of the sign last year in her office at the Shawnee County Courthouse and another office in a South Topeka mall. Schmidt, who describes herself as a pagan, called Cline's office in April to object to the sign.

Cline told Schmidt the posters were approved by the county counselor's office.

Crow noted that federal courts repeatedly have ruled that the display of the national motto is constitutionally acceptable, that it has secular purposes, and that it does not create "an intimate relationship" between religion and the government.

The plaintiffs argued Cline couldn't put up the posters because of her religious agenda.

However, Crow said federal courts usually don't consider only the purpose of the defendant in such a case, and he said the plaintiffs couldn't show any of Cline's actions coerced anybody into supporting or participating in a particular religion.

Crow also said they failed to show that Cline had retaliated or attempted to prevent them from speaking out.

In a footnote, Crow added: "Here, without changing their behavior as a consequence of the defendant's action, the plaintiffs can fully participate as citizens in this country without ever seeing the posters in the county treasurer's office or having any contact with the defendant."

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