By BRENT KALLESTAD
CROSS CITY, Fla. -- The folks who live in this sparsely populated rural region along Florida's upper west coast don't like outsiders butting in, especially when it comes to their religious beliefs.
They're miffed, to put it politely, and appealing a federal judge's order to remove a five-foot high granite monument that prominently displays the Ten Commandments in front of the Dixie County courthouse by Sunday.
It's the latest skirmish in a years-long conflict across the United States between state and local officials who have wanted to honor the laws that help define their faith and those who argue such displays should stay out of any public forum under a Constitution that bars the establishment of religion.
It has been almost eight years since former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore was removed from office and gained nationwide notoriety for refusing to move another huge granite monument to the Commandments from the court's lobby. But similar disputes continue to trickle through the courts in towns and counties nationwide.
Dixie County officials and residents say support for their monument is unanimous and they accuse outsiders of trampling on their way of life.
"We have not had one negative comment from the community," said county manager Mike Cassidy, a 48-year-old, fourth-generation Floridian who grew up in Cross City. "No one in this county has come forward and said, `this should be removed.' It has been totally unanimous."
The six-ton, $20,000 monument still sits on the courthouse steps. Beneath the commandments, the monument reads in large capital letters, "LOVE GOD AND KEEP HIS COMMANDMENTS."
Residents here have long had a reputation for their independence and don't take kindly to outsider interference, even if it's a constitutional issue.
"There will be people standing around it to protect it when they come to remove it," said Donald Eady, a 38-year-old mobile mechanic who lives in neighboring Old Town, a short jaunt south down four-lane U.S. Hwy 19. "The people here enjoy it. We should have that freedom, but they're taking our freedom away daily."
Federal judge Maurice Paul ruled on July 15 in favor of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, which sued Dixie County to remove the monument from the front of the courthouse building in Cross City. The monument was bought by a local businessman, who pays for its maintenance as well.
The Florida ACLU argued that an official government display of a religious monument violates a clause in the First Amendment that prohibits the government from promoting religious messages. The county argued that a private citizen owns the monument.
"The actual ownership of the monument, the location and permanent nature of the display make it clear to all reasonable observers that Dixie County chooses to be associated with the message being conveyed," Paul said in his ruling.
Attorneys for Dixie County filed notice July 26 at the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to defend the county's policy allowing private displays of law and history. The status of that appeal is pending.
Disputes in Kentucky, Virginia, Utah, New Mexico and other states have continued to bounce through lower courts since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in 2005 that displaying the Ten Commandments could be constitutional if its main purpose was to honor the nation's legal traditions, rather than religious traditions.
Some governments have tried to follow that ruling by displaying the Commandments with other legal documents, like the Magna Carta and Hammurabi's Code. But conflicting opinions have since been issued in appeals courts.
The U.S. Supreme Court declined to take up the issue again in February when it refused to consider a dispute about displays banned from two Kentucky courthouses.
The Dixie County monuments were paid for by Joe Anderson Jr., the president of Lake City-based Columbia Anderson, which has grown over its 53-year history into one of the largest highway construction and paving firms in the Southeast. He is listed on the back as its owner. He has also paid for three identical monuments in neighboring counties.
Attempts to reach Anderson were referred to Liberty Counsel attorney Mathew Staver, who represents Dixie County in the appeal. Anderson has agreed to remove the monument if a stay is not received by Sunday's deadline, Staver said Wednesday.
"There's nobody in that county who wants that monument moved," Staver said.
The suit was filed anonymously by an out-of-state individual. The plaintiff's name has been kept private by court order.
"The plaintiff came into the town, left the town, never intended to live or come back," Staver said. "This is a person that doesn't even live in the state of Florida and has no intention of moving."
Derek Newton, spokesman for the Florida ACLU, disputes Staver's claim that the plaintiff is from out-of-state. He said the plaintiff splits time between homes in Florida and North Carolina and has belonged to the ACLU since 1989.
"The plaintiff is the ACLU," Newton said. "The person who we took to the court as a member of the ACLU was a resident of an adjoining county, who was seeking to buy property in Dixie County. They went to the courthouse to pull public records and decided not to buy property in Dixie County in part because of the offensive monument in front of the courthouse."
Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU's Florida operation, said the community can relocate the monument at a church or other house of worship.
There is little public disagreement about the religious sentiments in the county where there is 12 percent unemployment in an economy largely dependent on the timber industry.
Driving into Cross City on Hwy 19 from the north and one is greeted by a sign in front of the First Baptist Church which reads: "Listen to God's Word And Do As He Says."
"A bunch of people that ain't got no damn sense want to tear down the good Lord," said Jeannie Hoffman from neighboring Tennille. "They took prayer out of schools, they took paddlings out of schools, they took all your rights away right there."
Although most are still registered as Democrats, Dixie County votes increasingly Republican. U.S. Sen. John McCain and former President George Bush both fared well with Dixie County voters, who have all Republicans representing them in the Florida Legislature.
Although one of the poorest areas of Florida with the timber industry about the only thing left after a government net ban shut down the fishing business some 20 years ago, Dixie County has historically boasted some of the better schools in the state based on a statewide grading system.
Incorporated in 1924, Cross City is the largest community in Dixie County with roughly 1,700 residents. The second largest is Horseshoe Beach with about 200 folks. The remaining 15,000 or so residents are scattered throughout the heavily wooded county.
Remote and spread out, but still tight-knit.
"We support what we feel is right four our citizens," said Cassidy, who like most of the government leaders and local law enforcement, grew up in the community.
And to them that means keeping the Ten Commandments monument right where it is.