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Monday, December 9, 2013

Georgia lawmaker wants to replace Thomas Watson statue with Ten Commandments monument

A framed copy of the Ten Commandments is posted in the basement of the capital along a wall above a small sign that reads Historical Foundations of American Law & Government.
  • Joeff Davis/CL File
  • A framed copy of the Ten Commandments is posted in the basement of the capital along a wall above a small sign that reads "Historical Foundations of American Law & Government."
Adios, racist. Hello, "thou shalt not kill?"

Just a few weeks after the state relocated the controversial Thomas Watson statue from the front of the Georgia Capitol, a south Georgia lawmaker is proposing a monument that would feature the Ten Commandments near the Gold Dome's front entrance.

State Rep. Greg Morris, R-Vidalia, has pre-filed legislation that calls for a granite monument to be erected where the Thomas Watson statue rested for decades. The proposed monument would have several inscriptions: one side would depict the preambles for the Georgia and United States constitutions, and the other would feature the Decalogue.

Morris tells CL he started to think about a replacement monument soon after Gov. Nathan Deal ordered the statue's removal. The state lawmaker introduced his measure because he wanted to display the state's three most important founding documents in the "most important central place" outside the Gold Dome.

"We have the constitutional right to display it," Morris says. "[W]hen we, as legislators, swear an oath, we swear it to the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of Georgia. I believe the freedoms we enjoy in those documents are directly derived from the Ten Commandments."

The Gold Dome is no stranger to church and state conflicts. State lawmakers in 2012 passed a law that allowed for the Foundations of American Law and Government - a series of documents including the Ten Commandments as well as the Declaration of Independence, Magna Carta, and Mayflower Compact - to be displayed inside public buildings. In September 2012, state officials hung the religious document inside the Georgia Capitol.

"I'm not concerned if anyone will take offense," state Rep. Tommy Benton, R-Jefferson, who sponsored the 2012 law, told the AJC. "If they don't want to look at it, they don't have to look at it."

Maggie Garrett, legislative director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, tells CL the monument would be "constitutionally problematic" for several reasons. She objects to the religious document being prominently featured in a place where both activists stage protests and children visit on field trips. Because of its potential location, she thinks it pales in comparison to the Ten Commandments hanging on the Gold Dome's walls.

"There's already one displayed inside the building, isn't that enough?," Garrett says. "After they just removed a real controversial [Thomas Watson] monument, you wouldn't think they'd want to put up another controversial monument."

State Sen. Nan Orrock, D-Atlanta, one of the few lawmakers to vote against 2012 Ten Commandments display, tells CL that the public posting of the Ten Commandments raises "serious constitution questions" and has led to costly lawsuits across the nation. These kinds of debates, she says, have resulted in wasteful public spending and have failed to address the needs of Georgia families across the state.

"It's simply a bad idea and something we see far too often," Orrock says. "It's vindictive and won't result in one job created or one child educated. It's a poor use of our time and our resources."

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