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Somber anniversary

One year after the ACLU filed suit to remove the Ten Commandments from the Barrow County Courthouse, Georgia churches are still committed to the battle


Joe Westbury

Jody Hice, pastor of Bethlehem First Baptist Church, has found himself at the center of the Ten Commandments fight in Barrow County. In this interview with The Christian Index, Hice explains why Christians should be concerned about the outcome of the court case and its implications on the national scene.

WINDER — Tap, tap, tap. Tap, tap. Tap, tap, tap.

The sound of a hammer driving a nail into a wall in the Barrow County Courthouse may have been overlooked by many on a weekday afternoon 18 months ago, but its echo may reverberate all the way to the United States Supreme Court.

At about 3:30 p.m. – the date has long been forgotten out of its seemingly insignificance – a Georgia Baptist layman serving as a Barrow County commissioner hung a framed copy of the Ten Commandments in a breezeway linking the old courthouse and an annex building.

It may have been an unceremonious act, but it was accomplished in broad daylight and with prior unanimous approval of the six county commissioners. And it went virtually unnoticed by the general population for 18 months until the American Civil Liberties Union demanded it be removed under threat of legal action.

That action will observe its first anniversary on Sept. 16.

Today, that soft-spoken commissioner – Bill Brown – has yet to hear a complaint from anyone in the county who disapproves of the document’s presence. Yet the single complaint from an anonymous individual to the ACLU has elevated the act to national prominence as it works its way through the legal system.

The next chapter in the saga will be written sometime this fall in Gainesville when the case comes before the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia.

Jody Hice, pastor of Bethlehem First Baptist Church in Barrow County, believes Christians throughout Georgia should be concerned with what happens in that trial because it could easily determine their rights as private citizens to acknowledge God in an appropriate way on government property.

“This case goes far beyond our county seat,” Hice cautions.

“The implications are tremendous for Christians not only in Georgia but throughout the nation. For example, it could impact the freedom to have Bibles in public libraries or for a teenager to wear a Christian shirt to a public school. I don’t think most believers realize the seriousness of the battle that we are in for our Christian identity.”

At 44 years of age, Hice is not the typical image of a man with a strong agenda. But the soft-spoken pastor has been thrown into the limelight as he has rallied citizens across the denominational spectrum around the Ten Commandments cause.

“This is not just a simple case about whether the Ten Commandments should remain on the wall in a relatively insignificant hallway in the county courthouse. It goes to the very heart of our First Amendment rights as believers in the Christian values on which our nation was founded,” he says.

Hice articulates those values with the skills honed through months of explaining the issue to audiences throughout Georgia. It’s a cause that he prays will awaken churches to stand up for Christian values that are steadily being eroded in post-modern America.

While the Ten Commandments have been under attack for similar displays across the nation, many of those cases have been fought – and won – on the grounds of their value as a historical document. They have frequently been displayed, as in Jackson County, along with documents such as the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, the Hammurabi Code, and the Magna Carta – or alongside other faith documents.

What sets the Barrow County case apart from the others is the commissioners’ unified stance that the documents are a reminder that the United States was founded on Christian principles and that those principles are interwoven into its judicial system.

“The reason we are fighting this case is that we do not want the Ten Commandments to be reduced to just one of many documents from our nation’s past – documents that may have had their place at one time in history but are largely irrelevant today,” he said.

It’s because of those similarities that former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore has partnered with Hice and others who are fighting to keep the Ten Commandments in the courthouse.

Moore was removed from office in November 2003 for failure to remove a Ten Commandments monument in the State Judicial Building in Montgomery.

“Many of the citizens of Barrow County who have joined with us in this fight believe that we were founded as a Christian nation and that God is still our God, today and for the future. He is not a part of our history that is no longer relevant. (See related story on page 3.)

“Christianity is what has made our country the free nation that it is today. Christian principles have guided us as we treat everyone fairly and with respect. We do not push our faith on anyone, but Christianity is the faith on which we were founded.

“You could not go to Iraq or India or any of a variety of nations today where Islam or Hinduism is the primary faith and start a Christian church without encountering a tremendous amount of persecution or loss of life. But in America, because of our Christian values, we treasure freedom to worship and allow a diversity of expressions of faiths.

“What we are facing today is a full attack on Christianity in American culture. A good example is what happened recently in Los Angeles,” he explained.

Under threat from legal action by the ACLU, government leaders on June 8 voted a second time to remove a small cross from their county seal. The cross, meant to represent the Spanish missionaries who settled the area, was declared to be unconstitutional use of a religious symbol in a government seal.

Never mind that the seal’s most dominant feature is the Roman goddess Pomona, the religious diety of gardens and fruit trees, Hice points out. That symbol was left intact.

The seal also features a Spanish galleon, a tuna, a dairy cow, the Hollywood Bowl, engineering tools, and oil derricks.

Ben Wizner, an ACLU attorney, told the Los Angeles Times that the board had “shown leadership in the truest sense. The board is not ignoring or erasing the county’s history. It’s honoring that history without making some residents feel unwelcome.”

The board stated it chose to remove the symbol rather than fight a case against the ACLU, which it knew it could not win.

That kind of repeated attack on Christianity is what has Hice and others up in arms.

“We are in a contest in this country that will decide who is going to lead us and where we are going as a nation. We will either be led by people who acknowledge God and recognize the right of others to acknowledge Him, or by people who seek to remove any mention of Him from our society.”

Hice and the organization which has been birthed out of the Barrow County predicament, Ten Commandments – Georgia, Inc. (TCG), have identified three fronts on which the battle must be fought in Georgia.

• The legal front. The nondenominational group has dedicated itself to raise funds for the Barrow County legal defense since the county commissioners, who have refused to buckle under to the ACLU threat, voted not to use taxpayer money to fight the case. The legal fees average $20,000 a month with about $140,000 having been spent thus far. Funds are paid out almost as soon as they are received, Hice says.

• The political front. TCG wants to encourage voters to elect individuals to office who will become committed to getting judges appointed who stand for Christian values.

To do so will require Christians to vote en masse in every election. Hice maintains that 50 percent of evangelical Christians are not registered to vote, and only half of those who are registered actually vote. That means that 75 percent of evangelicals do not vote in any given election.

“We can change the entire course of our country through the ballot box,” he maintains.

• The religious/spiritual front. This is the heart of the campaign, Hice states. TCG was founded primarily to motivate Christians to pray and take a stand for righteousness.

A primary way to do that is to get 1.2-million signatures of residents who support the public display of the Ten Commandments; to register 600,000 new voters; and to encourage Georgians to place the Ten Commandments in their yards and in their homes – but most importantly, in their hearts.

To that end, TCG is raising funds to distribute 5 x 7-inch color copies of the document, suitable for framing, to every home in the state. That task will eventually be accomplished through TCG chapters – one in each of the state’s 159 counties – which are in the very early stages of being formed.

The first two chapters are in Hart and Elbert counties, and are influencing groups in the incubation stages in 13 other counties, Hice added.

The pastor is quick to point out the power behind the Ten Commandments. That power is the same today as it was nearly 4,000 years ago when they were first given to Moses on Mount Sinai, he states.

“The real power in the Ten Commandments is the power to convict of sin. The Ten Commandments remind us of our human condition, of how we cannot possibly meet all of the Commandments, and how hopeless we are without Divine help. But their real beauty is that in convicting us of our sin, they drive home the need for a Savior, and that points squarely to Jesus Christ.”

Hice says placing the Commandments in a public place does not force anyone to accept Christ, but they do bear witness of a loving God who gave Himself for a sinful world.

“That’s why it’s as important to have the Ten Commandments in every home as in every courthouse where people come to transact business. Many who receive a free copy of the Commandments will throw them away, but we are praying that they will find their way into hundreds of thousands of homes throughout Georgia where they will be placed on a wall as a constant reminder of God’s grace and forgiveness.

“In so doing, we are praying that slowly, one by one, individuals in each family will take that small step of repentance in some area of their life that will begin to turn their home back to God.”