Itasca Community Television / Facebook

The atheist group, the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) has sent a letter to a Minnesota jail after allegedly receiving complaints from residents and taxpayers about the massive 2-story Ten Commandments display set outside the new jail. The display also contains quotes on faith from known politicians and Americans such as Ronald Reagan and Thomas Jefferson. The FFRF accused the display of violating the Establishment clause. It stated that the Ten Commandments clearly had a religious message and not just a historical context and stated that, “The quotes advising prisoners to find answers in the bible and believe in God should also be removed. Constituents—including prisoners—have the right to be free from government proselytization. Prisoners do not shed their rights by virtue of being in prison. Federal courts of appeals have held that public prisons cannot coerce or otherwise promote religion to prisoners.” The letter accused the jail of proselytizing. “What the county has essentially done is to say to these inmates … that if they want the answers to their woes, it has to come from the Bible.”

Visitors to the new jail also shared their concerns. “The whole time I was thinking if I were in here, it would be very clear to me that I was not in a safe place,” said Grand Rapids resident Dana Butler. Itasca County Sheriff Joe Dasovich has taken responsibility for the display, although he did not oversee or approve its installation. “I knew that it would cause people to feel a certain way,” he said. He stated that he has heard a lot of support for the display to remain. “I’ll take everything into account and make a decision, and I may not be happy with my decision,” he said regarding taking down the display. “Legal representation says that they should be painted over. We’re leaving the county open to litigation,” he said. “… My job is to manage risk, daily, and I need to weigh the risks and make a decision.”

Lucas Thompson, Itasca County jail administrator oversaw the display and there are indications that he might have been aware of the potentially contentious nature of the display. During a tour of the jail, when asked how soon he expected to receive a complaint about the display, Corrections Deputy Garrett Smith was quoted as saying, “I imagine it won’t be long, but my boss was like, ‘Well, I’ll put them up until I can’t,’” Smith told the tour attendee. “… And he was like, ‘Well, I’m going to be done in three years, I’m going to put them on there, and we’ll ride it out.’” A decision on the display is currently pending.

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