Minnesota sheriff paints over Ten Commandments mural at new county jail

Itasca County Sheriff Joe Dasovich said he didn't want to paint over the religious displays but did so on the advice of legal counsel.

Ten Commandments
Itasca County Sheriff Joe Dasovich said he didn't want to paint over the religious displays but did so on the advice of legal counsel. (Itasca Community Television/Facebook)

A two-story mural featuring the Ten Commandments and historic religious quotes, including two from former President Ronald Reagan, at a new county jail in Minnesota, has been painted over due to pressure from the same group that won a federal court ruling against recognizing Good Friday as a state holiday.

Itasca County Sheriff Joe Dasovich told The Epoch Times that he didn’t want to paint over the religious displays, but did so on the advice of legal counsel.

Mr. Dasovich, who inherited the controversy after his recent election, also said he was concerned that the new jail would not pass an upcoming scheduled inspection by the Department of Corrections (DOC).

“I felt like it had to be painted over before the DOC inspection,” Mr. Dasovich said. “Did I want it down? Absolutely not. Do I want it back up? Absolutely.”

The pressure to remove the religious displays, which were installed as part of a newly built, $75 million county jail, came from the group the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), which argued that the displays violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, long interpreted as a call for a separation of church and state.

The group said it received complaints about the mural and other religious mantras.

FFRF’s staff attorney, Hirsh Joshi, wrote a letter to county officials on May 1 demanding that the religious motifs be removed or covered up. “The message to county officials is simple: Repaint and repent,” Mr. Joshi stated. “Paint over the quotes and Ten Commandments display, then apologize to constituents for wasting money on two paint jobs.”

However, the national conservative legal group, Liberty Counsel (LC), claims that the displays were legal according to new U.S. Supreme Court rulings, which replaced old doctrines concerning religious displays on government property.

The first ruling the group cited is the 2022 landmark decision on a dispute between the city of Boston and a Christian group over flying their flag on a public flagpole. In that case, the court ruled that the city of Boston was engaging in religious censorship when it refused to fly the Christian flag.

LC also cited the 2022 landmark ruling that a silent prayer led by a high school football coach on school property before games was protected under the First Amendment’s Free Speech Clause. “We are disappointed that Itasca County has bowed to FFRF’s improper pressure to paint over the County’s Ten Commandments mural in its new jail,” Hugh Phillips, an attorney for LC, told The Epoch Times. “Government hostility towards religion and the Ten Commandments itself violates the Establishment Clause,” he said.

The Ten Commandments mural covered most of one wall in the new inmate gym at the Minnesota jail.

There were several other religious inscriptions, including “One nation under God,” which were inscribed on prison cell blocks, as well as religious quotes from speeches by President Reagan.

“Within the covers of the Bible are the answers for all the problems men face,” was one of them. The late Republican president made the comment at the 1983 Convention of National Religious Broadcasters.

A quote from former President Thomas Jefferson’s book Notes on the State of Virginia, first published in 1785, was featured on the wall: “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that His justice cannot sleep forever.”

Another removed quote from President Reagan stated, “If we ever forget we’re one nation under God, then we will be one nation gone under.”

According to Liberty Counsel, there are about 50 displays of the Ten Commandments on various government properties across the United States, including at the Library of Congress and the Ronald Reagan International Trade Building.

In its letter to Itasca County officials, FFRF said that it was unconstitutional to impose religious beliefs in a prison setting where inmates are confined.

“This is clearly an imposition of a sectarian religious perspective on a group that has little choice in the matter,” FFRF’s co-president, Annie Laurie Gaylor, said in the letter. “Itasca County officials are taking advantage of the situation.”

In 1996, in a landmark ruling, FFRF won a federal court decision that overturned a half-century-old law that declared Good Friday a state holiday in Wisconsin.

In November, it won a settlement in a lawsuit against the state of New Jersey for requiring elected officials “to swear to God” when taking their oath for office. Under the settlement,  the state agreed to adopt a secular option for oath-taking.

It also won a settlement with the city of Santa Clara in California over its gripe with the display of a 14-foot granite cross at a public park. The group dropped its lawsuit when the city agreed to move it to a nearby memorial park.

It has also lost several challenges including removing the image of the Ten Commandments from the seal at the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, California.

The group recently dropped a lawsuit it had filed against former President Donald Trump and his administration for refusing to adopt a policy stating that anyone receiving social services and supplies, such as food and shelter, provided through religious organizations using tax dollars, does not have to comply with the group’s beliefs.

On May 3, the group announced it was dropping the lawsuit because President Joe Biden had adopted new policies to end what they called “government proselytization.”

Mr. Dasovich, who identified himself as a practicing Catholic, said the murals at the county jail were never intended to indoctrinate anyone, but only serve as an inspiration like any other quotes found at public buildings and parks across the United States.

“We do have inmate programs that include spiritual services,” he said. “This was not intended to divide, but create diverse programming for those inmates.”

Mr. Phillips said he is hoping others will stand strong against the pressures of groups like FFRF to remove displays with religious references.

“We urge local governments to not fear the meritless claims of groups such as FFRF and we stand ready to defend them against groundless attacks,” he said.

Steven Kovac contributed to this report.

This article was originally published at The Epoch Times


Alice Giordano | The Epoch Times

Alice Giordano is a freelance reporter for The Epoch Times. She is a former news correspondent for The Boston Globe, Associated Press, and the New England bureau of The New York Times.