County In Michigan Receives Complaints, Threat Of A Lawsuit Over Religious Sign

| by Arthur Kogan
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Staff Attorney Rebecca S. Markert has recently wrote a letter on behalf of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) to Ottawa County Commissioners to remove what they believe to be a “religious sign on a public property.”

The sign, which was placed in Hager Park, Michigan, read: Psalm 19:1, “the heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handiwork.”

After being initially removed by the parks department due to various complaints that claimed the sign was unconstitutional, a 9-2 vote by commissioners eventually reinstated the sign on Jan. 27.

The letter describes the FFRF as a “nationwide organization which works to protect the constitutional principle of separation of state and church. We represent 21,500 members across the country, including more than 550 members in Michigan.”

The organization claims that the sign violates basic principles of the First Amendment and the Establishment Clause which they say, “at the very least, prohibits government from appearing to take a position on questions of religious belief.”

The letter goes on to explain that, “this display of a bible verse on a sign owned and maintained by the County would be viewed by a reasonable observer as an endorsement of religion by the County, and is therefore unconstitutional.

“No legitimate secular purpose is served by posting a bible verse in a public park informing citizens of ‘the glory of God.’ This billboard serves only to express approval of religion,” Markert added.

The end of Markert’s letter on behalf of the FFRF read as follows:

“The Parks Department was correct in its action to remove this unconstitutional sign. Ottawa County must follow suit and immediately rescind its decision to put the billboard with a bible verse on it back in Hager Park. Please inform us in the writing of the steps you take to remedy this unconstitutional violation."

“To me this hasn’t been as much about the constitution or the bible as much as community values,” said Al Vanderberg, Ottawa County administrator. “Certainly, in Jenison you have strong community values that backed wanting the sign put back out.”

The FFRF is not the only group opposed to the sign, which was initially raised in the 1960s. The Center For Inquiry has also stated that they will consider legal action.

According to Michigan Live, the Center for Inquiry is an international, nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that "encourages evidence-based inquiry into science, pseudoscience, medicine and health, religion, ethics, secularism, and society. The Center for Inquiry is not affiliated with, nor does it promote, any political party or political ideology." The Center for Inquiry-Michigan was formed in 1997 and is affiliated with the national organization.

Ottawa County Attorney Doug VanEssen told the board last month that the memorial garden concept won't be acceptable and a judge will most likely order the Psalm 19 sign removed if the case were to go to court.

Sources: Fox Online – West Michigan, FFRF Letter, Michigan Live   

Photo Source: Flickr, Michigan Live