Monday afternoon Cocke County Sheriff Armando Fontes placed the Ten Commandments on display in the county's courthouse. The religious document is accompanied in a frame by copies of the Bill of Rights and the U.S. Constitution.
Fontes is the 25th sheriff in Tennessee to request the framed documents from conservative activist June Griffin. Griffin donates the framed display in order to circumvent any argument that taxpayer dollars have been utilized to purchase the religious document.
The 25 requests from various sheriffs started in March of this year. That is when Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam signed a law that permits cities and counties to display the Ten Commandments as a historical document alongside other historical documents.
Unlike many other counties, Cocke County never had to remove the Ten Commandments from its courthouse. In fact, this is the first time the religious document has ever been displayed there.
"To my knowledge, they [the Ten Commandments] have never been anywhere in the courthouse," said Fontes. "The separation of church and state is to keep the government from
interfering and coercing people into one specific belief. Simply
posting something does not coerce someone into one specific belief."
Fontes said he is not concerned the display will be perceived as the government endorsing or promoting one religion.
"This is all about the history of our nation. The Ten Commandments is a document that was used in the formation of our government," said Fontes. "Don't go changing our heritage just because someone is offended."
Fontes said he is not inviting a legal fight by posting the documents in the courthouse. He firmly believes the state's legislation protects Cocke County from lawsuits.
"The governor signed this into law to prevent groups like the ACLU or other groups from attacking small counties that cannot afford to fend off major lawsuits," said Fontes. "They have to take it up with the state because it is a state law."
Fontes said he believes the documents on display in the courthouse will have an impact on the county's citizens.
"It is an eye-opening experience because it tells people how to behave," said Fontes.
The ACLU has not stated any intention of filing lawsuits against Cocke County for the display. The national group Americans United for the Separation of Church and State said it examines the validity of each display on a case-by-case basis and will review the situation in Cocke County.
"The placement of the Ten Commandments with only a couple of other documents has traditionally been vulnerable to legal challenges," said Alex Luchenitser, the associate legal director for Americans United. "By putting up these displays, these counties are putting themselves at
risk of litigation and basically just asking for trouble."
At Jabo's Pharmacy in downtown Newport, the lunch crowd in the old style diner expressed a variety of opinions on the display of the Ten Commandments.
"They need to put them [the Ten Commandments] up," said Del Rio resident Billy Lamb. "It is not going to hurt anybody. There are Bibles in the courthouse. If you don't believe in the Bible, you don't have to swear on it. Nobody says you have to believe the Ten Commandments"
"I don't see how it will offend anybody," said customer Reese Thornton. "It would not bother me if they had something from other religions."
Newport resident Roy Campbell's background as a lawyer became evident as he sat at the lunch counter and was asked about the Ten Commandments.
"I don't have any particularly strong feelings against the display, but my main concern is I hope they don't get us involved in expensive lawsuits that the county has to defend," said Campbell. "I am a firm believer in the Ten Commandments, but I'm afraid we've got some people that will get us [the county] in trouble. We have so many other things the county needs to spend money on and up until now we've never had a problem with this [debate over the Ten Commandments]."
Reporter's note: Web Extra video of the full interview with Cocke County Sheriff Armando Fontes is attached to this story. Mobile users who do not see a link to the video in the story text should navigate to the video section of the WBIR App to view the full interview or visit the full WBIR website.