Original Photography by George Bannister (Licensed)

Original Photography by George Bannister (Licensed)

The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania dismissed an Establishment Clause challenge to a Ten Commandments monument located on the lawn outside a local high school, in Freedom From Religion Foundation v. New Kensington-Arnold School District (W.D. PA July 27, 2015).  The monument, six feet tall and weighing 2,000 pounds, sits on a grassy area between two sidewalks in the vicinity of Defendant School District’s (“School District”) high school gymnasium.  The Court found that the plaintiffs in this case, a mother and a daughter living in the School District, only had limited contact with the monument with virtually no injury, and were therefore without standing to pursue the merits of their lawsuit.

Plaintiff mother is an atheist who objects to the Ten Commandments monument on the high school grounds, but had only been to the school a handful of times to see the monument.  She viewed the monument once when dropping off her sister at the high school and again when attending a karate event at the school.  Although she did not stop to read the monument in full, she testified that when she saw the line “I am the Lord thy God,” her “stomach turned and [sh]e just kept on walking.”  Plaintiff mother believes that the presence of the monument signals that she is an outsider, and she does not want her daughter to attend a school that endorses religion.

Plaintiff daughter was a middle school student at the time the lawsuit commenced.  She had never been a student at the high school, but used the swimming pool there with her daycare program in grades three through five, and attended a karate event at the high school with her mother.  She also viewed the monument while driving to the house of a friend who lives near the high school.

Applying the “direct unwelcome contact” standard, the Court concluded that the plaintiffs had not been injured by the presence of the Ten Commandments monument on the high school lawn for purposes of standing.  Specifically, they were not forced to come into “direct, regular, and unwelcome contact” with the monument,  Plaintiff mother’s contact with the monument was only “sporadic and remote” because she could recount only a handful of occasions she observed the monument.  While Plaintiff mother testified that her “stomach turned” when she saw the monument, she also testified that it did not occur to her that the monument was inappropriately placed on school grounds, and the offense caused to her only began to manifest itself after commencing suit.

Plaintiff daughter’s injury was found to be even more tenuous, since she was never a student at the high school.  She testified that when she saw the monument, she “was young so [she] didn’t really know what it meant.”  Although Plaintiff daughter was removed from the School District and placed in a different school system, this “injury” occurred after suit was brought.  Further, to have standing, a plaintiff must demonstrate a real threat of future injury.  The decision to remove Plaintiff daughter from the School District undermined any possible claim of future injury.