Commandments ruling spurs threats One of the women seeking removal of the Decalogue from the Chesco courthouse was harassed by telephone and e-mail. Threats follow plaque ruling

Posted: March 08, 2002

One of the women whose federal lawsuit led to Wednesday's ruling ordering that the 1920 plaque listing the Ten Commandments be removed from the Chester County courthouse received two threats yesterday.

Margaret Downey, founder and president of the Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia, who along with atheist Sally Flynn filed the suit, said she received two threats yesterday morning, by phone and e-mail.

Downey said the telephone call from a man was laced with obscenities and included the warning: "You're going to get it."

"It was a pretty horrible phone call," said Downey, adding that she retrieved the telephone number from a Caller ID device and reported it to Birmingham Township police.

Police yesterday confirmed Downey's complaint and said no one had been charged. There are state and federal laws against using telephones and other electronic communications to threaten.

Downey said the e-mail, also from a Chester County resident, accused Downey of "not allowing me my GOD given rights as a American. You will be hearing a lot from me in the future hope your servers are up to the challenge!!!!!"

County officials immediately condemned the threats and called for calm.

"This has been an emotionally charged issue, but we urge people to maintain cool heads," said County Commissioner Karen Martynick. "Both Sally Flynn and Margaret Downey were within their rights to do what they did, and it's unconscionable that people would in any way threaten them. We urge people not to get involved in that kind of activity."

Stefan Presser, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Philadelphia, which filed the suit against Chester County on behalf of Flynn and the Freethought Society, said that in addition to reporting the threats, Downey also bought computer antivirus software.

"I really do think this gives the lie to the commissioners' position that this is not a religious issue," Presser added. "People don't threaten to hurt other people over secular documents."

Presser said he had not heard of any threats against Flynn, 72, a Chester County civil-rights activist and atheist, but noted that she had taken steps to insulate herself after earlier threats.

Testifying at trial on Monday, Flynn said she had been the target of harassment since filing the lawsuit last year and had to purchase Caller ID devices and remove her name from her house and mailbox.

On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Stewart Dalzell ordered the Chester County commissioners to remove the 50- by 39-inch bronze plaque of the Decalogue from the front exterior wall of the courthouse in West Chester, where it has hung since being donated by a coalition of churches in 1920.

Dalzell rejected county officials' claim that the Decalogue is so commonly known that it has lost its purely religious significance. Writing that the text of the plaque is plainly a Protestant Christian interpretation of the Ten Commandments, the judge ruled that it violated the Constitution's First Amendment ban on government endorsement of religion.

The county commissioners will announce whether they will appeal at a public meeting at 1 p.m. Tuesday on the fifth floor of the courthouse.

Commissioner Colin A. Hanna said yesterday it was "nearly certain" they would appeal.

Yesterday at noon, supporters of the plaque gathered in front of the 155-year-old courthouse to show their support for keeping the Decalogue where it is.

Carrying signs that read "What Would Moses Say?" and "One Nation Under God," the 20 protesters, including a number of children, were greeted by Hanna.

"Bless your heart," Hanna said as he shook hands.

"Our country was not founded by atheists," said Suzanne DiJiacomo, 50, of Downingtown. "Sally Flynn is hateful enough to attack the basis of our government. She should just go around the corner when she sees the plaque."

DiJiacomo said a county appeal of Dalzell's ruling would be "a worthy use of taxpayer money."

Others were not so sure.

"It would be great to take this a step further without detriment to the taxpayers," said Jim Gasho, 41, of West Chester. "But there's a cost issue, and that makes me hesitant."

It is unclear how much an appeal, which could take several years and wind up before the U.S. Supreme Court, might cost. The county has several expensive capital projects planned, including a proposed $80 million justice center and a prison expansion.

County attorney Thomas C. Abrahamsen said an appeal would not be expensive because he did not expect the county to hire outside counsel. Abrahamsen said much of the legal research had already been done: "It's not like I have to reinvent the wheel to write an appellate brief."

Hanna said the county would consider creating a private legal defense fund for individual contributions. He said several of the region's "leading law firms" had offered pro bono support, but he declined to name them.

"I don't think that this will likely cost the county taxpayers much, if anything," Hanna said.

Contact Joseph A. Slobodzian at 215-854-2658 or jslobodzian@phillynews.com.

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