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`Ten Commandments' zapped

With much less fanfare than Moses, Salt Lake County has removed the stone tablets bearing the Ten Commandments from in front of the old courthouse, hoping to end decades of controversy and legal battles.

Crews hauled the monument away sometime last week at the direction of the County Commission, which has been defending it against lawsuits ever since it was erected at the Metropolitan Hall of Justice in 1971."We had practical and policy reasons for removing it," said Commission Chairwoman Mary Callaghan. "First of all, we are in the process of vacating the block."

The state courts that occupied two of the buildings on the block moved into the new Scott M. Matheson Courthouse earlier this year. And the nearby county sheriff's offices are scheduled to move to the new county jail site on 3300 South next year. That would leave only the Salt Lake City Library on the block.

Callaghan said the county is negotiating the sale of the property to Salt Lake City, which would probably raze all of the buildings between 200 and 300 East and 400 and 500 South for a redevelopment project.

But aside from those considerations, the county was also faced with a federal appeals court ruling that held that by allowing the Ten Commandments monument on public property, the county had established a public forum for expressions of alternative religious beliefs.

"We felt we needed to be careful in separating church and state," Callaghan said. "If we didn't remove it or move it to another location, how large would the forum have to be to provide space for all the different views?"

Large enough to accommodate anyone who wants to express a view, according to civil rights attorney Brian M. Barnard. At the front of the line would be his client, Summum, a group that filed suit in 1994 to place a stone monolith bearing its seven principles beside the Ten Commandments.

Summum, whose members believe in extraterrestrial beings and ancient Egyptian and meditative techniques, argued the county can't allow one organization to have its say on public property and deny the same right to others.

The U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, ruling last year that the county had created a "limited public forum" when it allowed the Ten Commandments monument to be placed at the courthouse.

"Allowing government officials to make decisions as to who may speak on county property, without any criteria or guidelines to circumscribe their power, strongly suggests the potential for unconstitutional conduct, namely favoring one viewpoint over another," Chief Judge Stephanie K. Seymour wrote for the three-judge panel.

The appeals court sent the case back to U.S. District Judge Dee Benson for a determination as to whether the county had acted arbitrarily in denying Summum's request. A hearing on the issue was held before a U.S. magistrate earlier this month.

The disappearance of the monument, however, may have rendered the issue moot, Barnard said.

"If the Ten Commandments monument is gone, there is no longer a forum, so our request for injunctive relief may be moot. However, there is still the question of damages and fees," he added.

And that could amount to a lot of money, considering the litigation has been going on for four years. Barnard said it's an expense the county could have easily avoided.

"If the county had done four years ago what it did last week (remove the monument), we could have avoided this lawsuit and this expense to taxpayers," he said.

Summum was not the first organization to take the county to court over the monument. The litigation began almost as soon as the Fraternal Order of Eagles received permission to erect the Ten Commandments monument on the lawn at 250 E. 400 South. The American Civil Liberties Union filed the first lawsuit, accusing the city and county of violating the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution.

Siding with the ACLU, the late U.S. District Chief Judge Willis Ritter ordered the monument removed in 1972, but he was overruled by the 10th Circuit Court. Later appeals court and U.S. Supreme Court rulings on similar cases left the door open for the Summum suit.