The Ronda commissioners voted during their Nov. 9 meeting to keep a copy of the Ten Commandments hanging on a wall in Ronda Town Hall.
During the meeting, about 15 people spoke in support of keeping the framed document posted in town hall.
Earlier this month, Ronda Mayor Rheajean Benge received a letter threatening legal action over displaying the Ten Commandments in town hall.
The letter, dated Nov. 4, was signed by Christopher Line, staff attorney with the Madison, Wis.-based Freedom from Religion Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes separation of church and state.
In the Nov. 9 meeting, Ronda’s five commissioners unanimously approved a resolution for establishing and posting “a display of historical documents” that includes the Ten Commandments and Declaration of Independence.
Ronda Commissioner Kevin Reece said in an interview in late October that he and a sign company representative hung framed copies of these documents, along with a framed U.S. flag, on a wall of a small meeting room in Ronda Town Hall on Oct. 28.
Reece said he first received indications of support for doing this from the majority of Ronda board members. Reece also shared an Oct. 21 letter from Line to Benge that said displaying the Ten Commandments on town property would be an unconstitutional endorsement of religion and told why.
Line said Thursday that no decision had been made on what, if anything, the Freedom from Religion Foundation would do next. He said the organization heard from a couple of citizens with concerns about the Ten Commandments being displayed in Ronda Town Hall
Line also said the display in question “clearly is unconstitutional. A lot of this has to do with intent.”
His Nov. 4 letter said an article in the local newspaper (Wilkes Journal-Patriot) “explains that the town admits to including secular displays along with the religious Ten Commandments only as a means to endorse this religious message while attempting to evade legal liability.”
The letter continued, “We write to inform the town that despite its scheme, it is still unconstitutional for it to display the Ten Commandments on town property. It is abundantly clear that the town intends to endorse religion by posting the Ten Commandments in the town hall. The town solicited designs on its official Facebook page’ to do this.
“The town has demonstrated no intention of creating any sort of educational or historical display that just so happens to include the Ten Commandments and courts are more than capable of seeing through these types of schemes. As we noted in our original letter, a Ten Commandments display in a town hall violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment,” the letter said.
Line cited a Supreme Court ruling saying Ten Commandments displays in two Kentucky courthouses violated the Constitution. The court said, “The touchstone for our analysis is the principle that the ‘First Amendment mandates governmental neutrality between religion and religion, and between religion and non-religion.’ ”
The letter continued, “We also remind you that when municipalities unsuccessfully defend unconstitutional displays, they are on the hook for the plaintiffs’ costs and attorneys’ fees. In Establishment Clause challenges to Ten Commandments displays, these can be significant.
“In order to follow constitutional mandates and respect the rights of conscience of Ronda’s residents, the town should remove its religious display from the town hall immediately. Please inform us in writing of the actions the town is taking on this matter so that we may determine if further action may be warranted.”
Before the Ronda board voted, Commissioner Sandra Simmons said she was concerned about the display with the Ten Commandments being put up without all commissioners knowing this in advance. Simmons said she supported displaying the Ten Commandments in town hall but she didn’t learn about it until after the display was up.
The Ronda mayor doesn’t vote unless there is a tie, but Benge said after the meeting that she supported the action taken because it represented the will of the people of Ronda.
The Rev. Ronnie McMillian, pastor of First Baptist Church of Ronda, was among people who spoke before the commissioners voted Nov. 9. McMillian said that from a historical standpoint, the Ten Commandments are an important symbol providing guidance for freedom. “If we take down the Ten Commandments, what’s going to be taken down next.”
McMillian noted that the Ten Commandments are displayed in numerous courthouses and even in Washington, D.C. He said they’ve commonly been displayed to symbolize the rule of law, role of a religion of one’s choice and development of American law. “It’s a great testimony of who we are.”
Ginger Franklin said posting the Ten Commandments isn’t telling anyone else how to feel and what to believe. “I want to see them stay because they mean a lot for us to look at and remember…. If they’re gone, we’re taking another piece if God out of here.”
Benjamin Romans asked the commissioners, “Do you wish to do what is right before our Lord and savior Jesus Christ and vote yes for the resolution and be fruitful, or to you wish to submit to the yoke of the left mob and become unfruitful and be gathered up like the branches and be cast into the fire.”
Wayne Russell said to the commissioners, “I just want to remind you that all of these people are in support of the resolution and you represent all of these people in the Town of Ronda. And we expect you to vote accordingly.”
Stoney Greene said God created the Ten Commandments in the beginning. “If everybody would live by the Ten Commandment and them posted on the wall, we wouldn’t need all these people Washington, D.C, or anywhere else because everybody in this room would love one another and this world would be a better place. I don’t know how you could not support something that would make Ronda a better place.”
Chris Nelson said Western society was built on the Ten Commandments and added that he didn’t see how displaying something as fundamental as that could be questioned. He said most religions in addition to Christianity incorporate the Ten Commandments “so I don’t see how you can say we’re infringing on someone else’s religion. If they like them, they don’t have to look at them, but they do have to follow our laws, which were founded on the Ten Commandments.”
Others speaking in favor of displaying the Ten Commandments in Ronda Town Hall included the Rev. Jamie Cothren, pastor of Ronda Church of God, and Dr. Alexander Snyder of the Clingman Medical Center.
In 2000, the Wilkes County commissioners approved a resolution authorizing two displays with the 10 Commandments and other historical documents “fundamental to the foundation of the legal codes and governmental systems” of the U.S., North Carolina and Wilkes County. Wilkes County Attorney Tony Triplett researched the matter then. No legal action was taken against the county.
The other documents included the Declaration of Independence, U.S. Constitution, Bill of Rights, Magna Carta, Justinian Code, N.C. Constitution, legislation creating Wilkes County and Wilkes County Seal.