A social organization that believes the Ten Commandments can cure juvenile delinquency has donated more than 150 granite slabs featuring the religious rules. The result: taxpayer funded legal battles over whether the donated monuments can sit on public property.
The Fraternal Order of Eagles has donated, by one count, at least 186 Ten Commandments monuments to state and local governments over the last 50 years. Bob Ritter, an attorney and atheist, has been documenting the gifts on his website as part of a project he began in 2008. By his count, 115 monuments donated by the Eagles currently sit on public land, including 20 at city halls and municipal buildings, 5 at state capitols, 29 by courthouses, and one at a school. There have been at least half a dozen lawsuits over the monuments.
“When you go to sue, you’re not suing the Eagles, because everyone has the right to give the government whatever they want. The government doesn’t have to take it,” Ritter said.
“They don’t have to defend these cases,” Ritter said. “The states and cities do, at public expense.”
As the story goes, Eagles member Judge E.J. Ruegemer came up with the idea of using the Ten Commandments to reform juvenile offenders after encountering a troubled teen in his chambers in 1946. “The young man stated he did not know anything about the Ten Commandments and asked where he could find them. The Judge pointed to the large library of law books and informed the boy that they were contained within those books,” wrote Sue Hoffman, who wrote a book about the Ten Commandments. “It was explained that the books contained thousands of laws, but he needed to seek out only ten of them because all of the laws in the country dealing with human relations were based upon those 10.”
Ruegemer passed away in 2005. “I think the Ten Commandments should be on display where people, especially children can see it,” Ruegemer told the Star-Tribune in 2003. “Yes, it’s a religious document, but also a historic document that is the basis for a lot of our laws.”
Ritter, the atheist researcher, had visited a handful of the monuments as part of his long-term research project.
“Of course when I visited the five… I didn’t see anyone reading them,” he said.
Inspired by the troubled teen, the Ten Commandments campaign began in earnest in 1951, when the Eagles commissioned frameable prints, which, Hoffman reports, were going to be given out to various courts. But then, legend goes, Cecil DeMille called up Ruegemer and asked why they didn’t make bronze plaques instead.
Ruegemer, ever the biblical scholar, pointed out that in the Old Testament God deals in stone. And thus, the granite monuments were born.
Estimates on the total number commissioned vary widely, but just under 200 are believed to exist today. DeMille used his star power to attract other celebrities to the crusade. Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner, and Martha Scott—stars of his Ten Commandments movie—were reportedly dispatched for many of the dedications.
But perhaps the oddest thing about this Ten Commandments push is that the Eagles are not primarily a religious organization. The fraternal group fundraises for causes as like cancer, diabetes, and children’s hospitals, while another program honors military service members. Ritter, a critic of their religious rules campaign, is quick to acknowledge that most of their work performs an important public service. (The Eagles also claim to have invented Mother’s Day, commonly attributed to Anna Jarvis.)
The Order of Eagles, founded in 1898, claims more than 800,000 members, with 1,500 local Aeries—chapters—in North America. There are an additional 1,300 women’s auxiliaries.
At least seven presidents, including both Roosevelts, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan, have been members, along with former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.
But despite its well-heeled pedigree, the FOE has largely stayed behind the scenes in many of the Ten Commandments fights. (The Oklahoma Ten Commandments monument, while not donated by the organization, was made to look like theirs.) At most, they typically file a friend of the court brief: Though they donate the monuments, defending their place on public land falls to the host government organization.
The Fraternal Order of Eagles and attorney Frances Manion did not return requests for comment.
In at least one case, a Pennsylvania school district’s defense of the monument against an atheist group cost upwards of $60,000. A judge found the Connellsville Area School District’s stone monument violated the establishment clause after complaints from a student’s parent, and the monument now sits on the grounds of a church.
A second case against a nearby school district is ongoing. There, a mother sued over her daughter having to walk past the religious monument on her way into school each morning, but withdrew her daughter from the school while the case was in progress. The two sides are currently establishing whether the mother still has standing to sue.
“From the pluralistic world we live in, certainly a number of people are objecting to those commandments,” Patrick Elliott, a staff attorney with the Freedom From Religion Foundation, told The Daily Beast. “It’s certainly not something the government should be involved in at all.”
The FFRF is representing the mother, Marie Schaub, in the case.
“I think the juvenile delinquency thing, it either doesn’t make a lot of sense, or they think religion will solve juvenile delinquency,” Elliott added. “It’s not saying be kind to your neighbors. It’s saying follow these commandments, which come from this religious holy book.”
In 2005, a six foot high Ten Commandments monument at the Texas State Capitol was the subject of a controversial Supreme Court case about its legality. The monument had sat on the capitol grounds since being donated by the Eagles in 1961. In fact, it was current Texas governor Greg Abbott who defended its presence as “perfectly constitutional” in Van Orden v. Perry.
Erwin Chemerinsky, who argued against it, told NPR’s Nina Tottenberg at the time that the monument was inherently religious because even picking a particular version of the Ten Commandments to display promoted one religion over another. “It couldn’t be more religious,” he said. “It begins with the words, in big letters, I am the Lord thy God.”
The court was split about the Texas monument’s constitutionality, but eventually found that the particular circumstances surrounding it—its longtime display, and the context among other monuments—made it permissible.
A companion case argued that same year, involving newer Ten Commandments displays (not donated by the Eagles) in Kentucky, had the opposite outcome. There, the texts were determined to have a primarily religious purpose.
In a somewhat creative move, some localities have attempted to circumvent potential challenges to the constitutionality of such monuments by selling small plots of government land to various private organizations. In effect, this has created mini “private parks” in the middle of public spaces.
In Lacrosse, Wisconsin, for instance, such a “private park” is distinguished by low fencing around a 440-square foot plot of land with a big sign proclaiming it private. The city sold the plot to the Eagles, the very organization that donated the monument, after the threat of a lawsuit by the Freedom From Religion Foundation. An appeals court found the transfer of land valid.
“In each of these there was a lawsuit, the threat of a lawsuit, so what the city did was sell a [small] plot of land to the eagles or a private organization,” Ritter said. “You can’t tell that these are not on public land!”
It’s the scale, too, of the Eagles’ campaign that makes it so noteworthy. “I don’t know of any other groups that donate anything to governments like this,” Elliott said. The Eagles distributed 10,000 Ten Commandments plaques, by their own count.
There’s a man in Florida giving out Ten Commandments monuments to individual counties in Florida, Elliott said. “But it’s not anywhere near on this kind of scale.”
And while the Eagles are not a religious group, and don’t seem to spend much time promoting the Ten Commandments campaign, their member publications are very passionate about maintaining them. An issue of the November-December 1972 issue, provided by Ritter, remarks that the Y.S. is “a nation of God-believing people,” and that fact won’t change. A cartoon shows the Ten Commandments being removed from in front of a courthouse, replaced by adult books and peepshows.
“Remember, it was a different time then. Everybody thought this was a good idea, a way to help build morality and character,” Ruegemer told the Star-Tribune in 2003. “I still think it’s a good idea. People haven’t changed much, but the times have changed.”