Editor's note: The Associated Press reported that Habersham County, Ga., dropped its appeal on Feb. 10 of a federal judge's order to remove its public Ten Commandments displays because it was costing taxpayers too much money.
GAINESVILLE, Ga. A federal judge has rejected a request by Barrow County officials to dismiss a lawsuit by an anonymous plaintiff who challenged a Ten Commandments display in the county courthouse.
U.S. District Judge William O'Kelley ruled that "this is one of those rare cases in which the plaintiff should be permitted to proceed anonymously."
The case will not be decided by the credibility of the person filing the suit but by whether the display is unconstitutional, O'Kelley said in his Dec. 18 ruling.
O'Kelley said the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed the suit for a plaintiff identified in court papers only as "John Doe," must make his identify known both to the judge and to lawyers for the county.
On Dec. 20, Barrow County commissioners voted unanimously in a rare Saturday meeting to appeal the judge's ruling. County officials have said the plaintiff's anonymity would impede the defense's case, giving the ACLU an unfair advantage.
"It boils down to an issue of fairness," County Attorney Currie Mingledorff said after the Saturday-night meeting.
The ACLU said identifying John Doe could expose him to threats.
Herb Titus, lead counsel for the county's Board of Commissioners, argued in a Dec. 11 hearing that the suit should be dismissed because the ACLU had failed to seek permission from a trial judge before filing the lawsuit on behalf of an anonymous plaintiff.
Titus, a Virginia Beach, Va., attorney, also worked on the defense team of Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, who was removed from office for defying a federal order to move a Ten Commandments monument from the rotunda of the state courts building.
The framed display has been in the Barrow County Courthouse for more than 18 months. Officials say they do not know who put it up, but they have refused to take it down.
Barrow is among a number of Georgia counties, including Jackson, Habersham and Cherokee, that have Ten Commandments displays in public buildings.
The suit filed on Sept. 16 on behalf of the unidentified Barrow resident argued that the Ten Commandments display violates the concept of church-state separation, and is therefore unconstitutional.
Last month, O'Kelley ordered Habersham County to remove its displays of the Ten Commandments at the courthouse in Clarkesville and at a public swimming pool.
Habersham officials have appealed that decision to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. They also have filed a motion for a stay of O'Kelley's order so they can put up the display again during the appeal.