Sullivan attorney addresses 'historical documents' space

J. H. Osborne • May 2, 2007 at 11:39 AM

BLOUNTVILLE - Sullivan County officials can designate a certain area of the county's courthouse for display of historical documents, County Attorney Dan Street said Wednesday - but they can't choose such a small space that it limits additional documents being displayed.

"If we ... limit the space for those historical documents, it could be we end up restricting the amount of historical documents we allow," Street told members of the Sullivan County Commission's Executive Committee.

The group was reviewing a proposal that could come for a vote by the full commission later this month. If approved, it would designate "an official area within the ... courthouse to display and house historical documents, plaques and/or other items; said ‘Historical Gallery' to be located at the main entrance to the right of the marble staircase on the first floor."

Much of the area described is already occupied by the Ten Commandments, Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights.

Street said the U.S. Supreme Court already has ruled against local governments elsewhere in the nation for having similar displays of the Ten Commandments - installed with procedures similar to that used by Sullivan County.

One thing Sullivan County has had going in its favor, Street said, was its policy of allowing the public to request display of other historical documents.

"There can be a dedication of an area," Street said. "We can't limit the space down to where you are no longer allowing any more historical documents."

Several of the committee's members said they believed the proposal to designate a "Historical Gallery" was trying to address the use of a French-doored alcove in the courthouse lobby.

Street said that was not his understanding of the proposal based on conversations he'd had with its sponsor, Commissioner Eddie Williams.

"My understanding is this is to reduce the wall space that's available in the county courthouse to display historical documents," Street said. "When you look at that space, there's not much space left."

The committee voted to take no action on the proposal, citing a need for clarification of its purpose.

Last month, Gary Melvin sought permission from the commission's Building Committee to display two historical documents at the courthouse - including the farewell address of the nation's first president, George Washington.

His presentation to the committee did not include exact measurements or any specific design for the documents - a requirement of the county's policy - but he said Washington's Farewell Address would likely need two or three times as much space as another document already on display at the courthouse.

In late 1999 or early 2000, Melvin began efforts to have the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom displayed at the courthouse - alongside the Ten Commandments, Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights. Melvin gained approval from county commissioners, and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom was posted in the courthouse last year. It's about 2 feet wide and 3 or 4 feet tall.

Melvin said he'd likely have to have two or three frames similar to that size to display Washington's Farewell Address.

Williams, chairman of the Building Committee, said he wasn't sure there was that much space available to display more historical documents in the courthouse.

Melvin pointed out many of the walls are bare. Williams said not all the walls would be used to display historical documents.

Melvin said if the entire courthouse was plastered with documents from the nation's history, then that would be the time to worry about whether any room was available for more.

Melvin said if the committee decides to start rejecting documents for display, the county needs to have its lawyers ready - because he has his, they're the American Civil Liberties Union, they went to Harvard and Yale, and they're free.

The Building Committee did not vote on Melvin's request. Minutes from the meeting indicate the lack of action was due to Melvin's failure to give the committee the size and number of plaques he was requesting.

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