CAMDEN COUNTY, Mo. — The Freedom From Religion Foundation wants two images removed from the Camden County courthouse but the First Liberty Institute says county officials should ignore the demand.

“We write to encourage you to disregard the FFRF letter," First Liberty Institute Deputy General Counsel Michael Berry wrote in a letter dated Jan. 9, 2019, "and to leave both displays in place for the benefit of Camden County citizens and employees alike. Our review of both displays in question reveals no Establishment Clause violation.”

The full letter can be viewed below.

The county received a letter from the FFRF, dated Nov. 9, 2018, demanding Camden County remove two images from the Camden County Courthouse in recognition that they “represent an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion.” One image is a large 9/11 Memorial painting, created by a local high school student. The second is the image of an American flag, overlaid with a Bible verse, hanging in an employee area of the Camden County Clerk's office.

In reference to the 9/11 Memorial painting, the First Liberty Institute pointed out the 9/11 Memorial known as the “Ground Zero Cross” was determined by a federal appeals court to not be in violation of the Establishment Clause, in American Atheists, Inc v Port Authority of New York & New Jersey. In that ruling, the First Liberty Institute pointed out, “The court stated that the 9/11 Memorial stands ‘as a symbol of hope and healing for all persons.’ Clearly if the 9/11 Memorial itself is permissible under the Constitution, then a painting depicting that same Memorial is certainly also permissible.”

Regarding the picture of a flag overlaid with a biblical quote hanging in an employee area of the County Clerk’s office, the Institute said, “The County should note that its employees enjoy robust First Amendment rights, even in the workplace. Although the courthouse is a government building and workplace, government employers nevertheless cannot engage in religious discrimination by permitting certain employee viewpoints to be expressed but not others purely because the disfavored viewpoints contain religious elements.” The letter cited President Bill Clinton’s “Guidelines on Religious Exercise and Religious Expression in the Federal Workplace” that says, in part, “As a general rule, agencies may not regulate employees’ personal religious expression on the basis of its content or viewpoint.”

The Institute concluded, “We encourage you to disregard the FFRF’s unfounded and inaccurate demand letter, to follow guidelines President Clinton established more than two decades ago, and to leave both displays untouched and in place.” The author of the letter, Deputy General Counsel Michael Berry, added, “I am available to answer any questions the County may have. Please do not hesitate to contact me at your convenience.”

As to the county's next steps, Camden County Presiding Commissioner Greg Hasty told on Wednesday, "We will have a commission meeting in the near future to make a decision, and outline our plans to set guidelines regarding religious expression in the workplace."

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