Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
May 26, 2020

Freshman takes action against city for posting Ten Commandments - Student joins forces with ACLU to fight MD city monument

By Gina Callahan | September 12, 2002

As further proof that Hopkins is full of movers and shakers, a member of this year's freshman class, Blake Trellien, is behind a controversial suit in Frederick, Maryland involving the placement of a religious monument in a local park.

Blake stumbled across the monument in question last summer in a small war memorial park jointly owned by the City of Frederick and the Frederick County Commissioners. Donated in 1956 by the Fraternal Order of the Eagles as a promotion for the film The Ten Commandments, the five-foot tall granite tablet is one of hundreds of identical monuments given to local governments for this purpose. The structure was located outside the Frederick Courthouse until that building was renovated and became City Hall. It has been in its current location since 1998.

Last spring, Blake, then a senior at Urbana High School, wrote a letter to the mayor of his town to challenge the constitutionality of the monument. A Frederick alderman read it, passed it on to a member of the Christian Coalition, and in little time, the local press was all over the issue. Blake recalls walking out of his Political Science Advanced Placement test in May to an awaiting television crew.

Yet, despite this attention and a lawsuit bearing his name, Blake stands by his original conviction and his motivation for writing the letter, which he describes as a belief in civil liberties, specifically the separation of church and state. Because of these principles, Blake does not discuss his own religion in conjunction with the controversy. "It really comes down to principles. The government should be neutral. You should feel welcome in the political process and feel welcome to participate regardless of religious beliefs," he said.

This issue is complicated by constituent and community involvement. According to Heather Smith, Frederick's Chief Legal Services Officer, there is a strong dichotomy between Frederick's citizens motivated by religious conviction and a minority who see the monument as a display of government favor toward one set of religious beliefs. "A large number of constituents feel strongly that it should not be moved," she said. Because Frederick County Commissioners are in an election year, the issue has become even more emotionally and politically charged.

According to a August 24 story in the Frederick News Post, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a federal suit late last month against both the city and the county to force removal of the monument. The ACLU gave city officials an August 1 deadline to settle the conflict or face a lawsuit. A plan to sell just the portion of the park containing the monument to a private entity was considered and then blocked by the County Commissioners. Instead the Frederick Board of Alderman resolved to rededicate Memorial Park as a historic cemetery, hoping to avoid litigation. This act was the result of research conducted by Smith and her staff confirming that the site has historical, archeological and cultural significance. The land was once church owned, but was handed off to be shared by the city and county after financial difficulties.

Smith commented that part of the covenant calling for a change of ownership requires that the land be recognized as a sacred graveyard. Some prominent citizens are buried in the land, possibly including the town's third mayor. "It's important to remember that these are human remains," she said.

Stacey Mink, spokesperson for the Maryland branch of the ACLU handling the case, says both the city and county were sent letters suggesting other remedies for the conflict. She commented that the rededication of the park as a Christian burial ground does not make for a better land classification. It is still unconstitutional. Precedents set by similar cases, where such religious monuments were found to violate the First Amendment, could be in the ACLU's and Blake's favor, although the fact that the land serves as a burial place makes this case unique.

Blake sees resolution in either a sale of Memorial Park to a private owner, an option complicated by its cemetery status, or in the removal of the monument. "From my perspective, it can't stay where it is. There are churches and other places that would be more appropriate for a religious icon," he said.

Regardless, of the outcome of the pending lawsuit, Blake, who as an undecided major could decide to venture into a field related to politics, has had an experience. "I didn't expect this at all," he said. "I mean I just wrote a letter, but I'm encouraged that it's being taken so seriously. It's been a learning experience for me. One person really can, if not effect change, then at least spark debate.

Comments powered by Disqus

Please note All comments are eligible for publication in The News-Letter.

News-Letter Special Editions