The Nelson County Courthouse in Virginia has been in existence since 1810, which is why local officials agreed to a $5 million renovation that began in 2015.
But as workers began chipping away at old paint, they uncovered words that had been placed there several decades ago (perhaps in the 1940s): “Virtus — Keep God’s Commandments — Veritas.”
Virtue and truth, interrupted by biblical gibberish.
It raises an interesting question: Should the lettering stay because it has historical value or should it be covered up because it’s promotion of religion? There’s no lawsuit at the moment but the exposure of the wording puts the county in a precarious position.
Doug Laycock, a professor at the University of Virginia’s School of Law and an expert on religious freedom law, said if the lettering is left up, a person or organization will say it should be taken down. If it’s removed, the other side will argue it should be preserved in place.
“Someone’s going to challenge this,” he said.
[Laycock] called the lettering “explicitly religious” and added its position in the courtroom, directly opposite a judge and jury, “aggravates the problem.”
“It’s telling these legal decision makers who are applying secular law that they should keep their religious obligations in mind,” Laycock said.
For the time being, the decision about what to do is in the hands of the Nelson County Board of Supervisors, which oversees the entire courthouse and renovation project, and Circuit Court Judge Michael Garrett, who oversees the courtroom.
Of the five supervisors, three of them are in favor of keeping the religious wording in place. Supervisor Larry Saunders even told a reporter, “we should put God back in the courtroom and schools.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation tells me they plan to send a letter to the supervisors about this issue today. To them, it’s unconstitutional. There’s no grey area here.
While the county works this out, the smart move may just be to cover up the religious wording until further action can be taken.
In a courthouse, the Constitution outweighs the Bible by a factor of everything.