CROSS CITY, Fla. — The American Civil Liberties Union is suing to force rural Dixie County to remove a hulking Ten Commandments monument from the courthouse steps.
The 5-foot-tall, 6-ton black granite monument stands in front of a building for the courthouse, the elections supervisor's office, the tax collector and other public offices. The lawsuit filed in federal court on Feb. 6 claims the monument heaps on its religious message with the inscription "Love God and Keep His Commandments" in large capital letters at its base.
The Dixie County Commission approved the monument, donated by a local businessman, in January 2006 and it was placed on the courthouse steps last November. The county is on the Gulf Coast north of Tampa.
"Dixie County is, in effect, thumbing its nose at the Constitution by putting up this display," ACLU attorney Glenn Katon said.
Dixie County commissioners and the county attorney did not return several phone and e-mail messages in time for this story.
"It's a great thing," Commission Chairman James Valentine told the St. Petersburg Times last month. "I believe in the Ten Commandments. I stand for it. It didn't cost the county a dime."
The lawsuit, ACLU of Florida v. Dixie County, argues that the monument violates the First and 14th Amendments because it is not part of a historical display and because the uniquely Judeo-Christian message of the Ten Commandments on a government building could intimidate people with different religious beliefs.
The suit asserts that the monument constitutes "government endorsement of a particular religion" and fosters "excessive government entanglement with religion."
The suit was filed on behalf of the organization, not an individual plaintiff. The ACLU said it has "half a dozen" members in the north Florida county, but declined to name any residents who might testify in the case.
"This lawsuit is likely to be a very unpopular lawsuit within Dixie County," said Florida ACLU Executive Director Howard Simon.
An initial effort to challenge the legality of the Dixie County monument fizzled because activists couldn't find a resident willing to sue.
The lack of an individual plaintiff may doom the case, said Brian Rooney, a spokesman for the nonprofit Thomas More Law Center, which has offered free legal aid to the Dixie County Commission. Commissioners have not yet asked the center to represent them.
"It's interesting that they don't seem to have a plaintiff," Rooney said. "Once we get involved in the meat of the case, that's the first thing we're going to find out. Is there a case or controversy at all? That's a big hurdle for them to get past."
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that religious displays are not inherently unconstitutional and must be considered on a case-by-case basis. Last year, the high court allowed the Ten Commandments to be displayed outside the Texas state Capitol but not inside two Kentucky courthouses, where the justices said the displays promoted a religious message.