A federal judge has thrown out a lawsuit by American Atheists Inc. over a Ten Commandments monument next to the Levy County, Florida, courthouse because the atheists’ lawyers didn’t properly prepare their case.
U.S. District Judge Mark Walker dismissed the case with prejudice, meaning it cannot be amended and refiled, because the plaintiffs lacked standing, a legal requirement to pursue a lawsuit.
“Plaintiffs brought a challenge to a religious monument that they’re unlikely to visit in the future and only visited once in the past during a purposeful visit. Plaintiffs also challenged the denial of an application that did not comply with the applicable guidelines,” the judge wrote. “Had counsel for plaintiffs devoted more thought to these issues, then perhaps this court could have addressed the merits of this dispute.
“But counsel didn’t, so this case must be dismissed for lack of standing,” he said.
The lawsuit was brought by American Atheists on behalf of Charles Sparrow after Levy County officials rejected an application to put up a “secular” monument near a Ten Commandments tablet on county land.
However, Sparrow refused to comply with “neutral” guidelines and requirements that the county had established even before the first monument was erected.
“There is no evidence in the record from which a jury could conclude that requiring insurance and indemnity agreements or requiring organizations to have offices in Levy County impacts religious applicants any differently than it would impact secular applicants,” the judge noted.
Further, he explained, it appears “that the only reason plaintiffs filed these applications was to hastily manufacture standing. Indeed, when given an opportunity to file their amended application, plaintiffs chose to argue about the guidelines instead of attempting to comply with them.”
The judge said that if Sparrow “can prove that he had direct and unwelcome personal contact with the monument at least once in the past,” he should, in theory, have standing.
But Sparrow couldn’t even do that.
“Sparrow knows he has seen the monument, but he does not remember when that was. Nor does Sparrow remember why he was at the Levy County complex … In fact, Sparrow admitted that he might have gone to the complex for the specific purpose of seeing the monument.”
The non-profit legal group Liberty Counsel, which is defending the county, said the county’s guidelines, which apply neutrally to all proposed private monuments on county property, were adopted in 2009.
Later, a local crisis pregnancy center applied to place a Ten Commandments monument on the site. It met all the county requirements and was given permission. The monument joined a veterans memorial and flagpole on the site.
The atheists, four years later, demanded to put up their own monument that was “disparaging religion with numerous out-of-context quotes commonly argued by atheists to undermine America’s religious heritage,” Liberty Counsel explained.
But the plan failed to meet the county’s guidelines, and permission was denied.
The lawsuit by the atheists demanded the county remove the previously approved tablet.
Liberty Counsel explained, “Two years of discovery, however, have shown that there is no injury under the Constitution – the local atheist plaintiff never wanted an atheist monument, but merely sought to remove the Ten Commandments.”
Mat Staver, chairman of Liberty Counsel, said the atheist organization “never intended to display its own legitimate monument but rather sought to remove a monument that complies with the public forum guidelines.”
“The Ten Commandments monument is the private speech of the group that placed it in Levy County’s public forum, and even if it were government speech, it is proper to recognize the influence of the Ten Commandments on American law and government,” he said.
The judge noted it’s always possible that Sparrow might visit the complex at some point later.
But it isn’t likely.
“The record before this court barely provides for the inference that Sparrow could hypothetically visit the complex, let alone that he will do so imminently. Sparrow’s failure to provide evidence indicating a future visit … is fatal to his claims for … relief.
“Quite frankly, this court is baffled by plaintiffs’ counsel’s failure to develop the record in this regard. Sparrow could have easily established standing by stating that he intends to return to the complex. … Counsel’s failure to develop these facts is certainly not for lack of opportunity.”