A federal judge sent a message Thursday to anyone who tries to intimidate those challenging public Ten Commandments displays: Do it and you can be sent to prison.
Senior U.S. District Judge William O’Kelley said his office in Gainesville received threatening phone calls after he ruled last month that Habersham County’s displays were unconstitutional and must be removed.
O’Kelley, a federal judge for 33 years, said he was raised by a “very Christian family.” As for the language used on messages left on his office answering machine, “it wasn’t very Christian, I can tell you that.”
O’Kelley, 73, made his remarks during a hearing on a lawsuit challenging another Ten Commandments display, this one at the Barrow County Courthouse in Winder.
“All I need to have are enough facts” about threats against or intimidation of plaintiffs or witnesses, O’Kelley said. If provided such information, O’Kelley promised, he will forward it to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. “We’ve got a place in the south of Atlanta” for such offenders, O’Kelley said, referring to the federal prison.
As for the threats that reached his office, O’Kelley said with a satisfied grin, “The marshals have talked to him. We know who it was.”
Thursday’s hearing on the Barrow case was held to hear arguments on whether the person who sued the county can be allowed to proceed as an anonymous plaintiff because he fears for his safety.
O’Kelley said he had “real difficulty” with allowing such a proposition and noted this was not a problem in the Habersham case.
But attorney Frank Derrickson, who with the American Civil Liberties Union represents plaintiff “John Doe,” said he would provide the plaintiff’s name to O’Kelley and the county’s attorneys. The plaintiff, who is a county taxpayer, also would provide testimony, under court seal, Derrickson said.
Derrickson provided O’Kelley with a sworn statement from a Barrow County woman who said she was confronted by supporters of the commandments display after speaking out against the display at a County Commission meeting. The framed display has hung at the courthouse for about 18 months after being donated by an unknown benefactor.
Herbert Titus, a lawyer representing the Barrow County Commission, argued it will be hard to determine the credibility of the plaintiff’s “injury” to being subjected to the Ten Commandments display if he remains anonymous.
After the hearing, county spokeswoman Lane Downs said she knows the woman who spoke out at the commission meeting but said she had never heard any complaints from her about the confrontation. “I think one or two people said something to her,” Downs said. “I think she was afraid from that. But people also spoke out to let her speak.”
O’Kelley said he would decide this issue “as quickly as possible.”