For Bobbi Rowe, the Ten Commandments monument at Valley High School has historical meaning unconnected to the church, politics or Hollywood.
The Arnold resident remembered on Thursday how a few hours of volunteer time spent planting flowers around the marker more than 40 years ago enabled him to get a copy of his high school yearbook.
Rowe and more than 50 other people — many of them clergy — gathered in the school’s parking lot yesterday to support the district’s refusal to remove the monument.
An atheist group based in Madison, Wisc., wants the display taken off school grounds, saying its presence on public property is unconstitutional.
When told Wednesday the group of mostly ministers planned to meet at Valley High School, Freedom From Religion Foundation cofounder Annie Laurie Gaylor said: “This is just going to prove our position that this is strictly a religious devotional on school property. They’re making our case for us.”
"I don’t agree with it," Rowe said about Freedom From Religion Foundation’s request. He argued "a group from Wisconsin" shouldn’t meddle in affairs in Southwestern Pennsylvania.
A 1965 graduate of New Kensington High School, the school’s name before the districts in New Kensington and Arnold merged, Rowe said a teacher offered to pay for his yearbook if he helped plant flowers around the granite tablet.
"I did it," Rowe said. "A yearbook back then cost $2.50, which wasn’t necessarily a lot of money, but was money I didn’t have."
According to the district, the New Kensington Fraternal Order of Eagles presented the monument to the district in 1957. About that time, Eagles aeries across the country were gifting similar markers to communities to promote Cecil B. DeMille’s biblical epic movie.
Marc Hoak, New Kensington Eagles secretary, said the club stands behind its decision to give the monolith to the district more than 50 years ago and hopes it will remain.
The Rev. Mitch Nickols, pastor at Bibleway Christian Fellowship in New Kensington, said the marker should remain because it’s a long-standing part of the school’s history.
Nickols organized yesterday’s rally “in support of what the district has already decided: that this monument stands as a historical monument.” He also has been circulating a petition, collecting signatures from more than 200 people who agree.
Students didn’t participate in the gathering, which happened at noon.
"We didn’t sanction the rally or suggest they meet on school property today," Superintendent George Batterson said.
"We are considering this an historic landmark, and that’s the reason we want to keep this," Batterson said. "We’re not keeping it there to instill religion in the students in our school."
New Kensington resident Rob Fusia, a re-enactor who attended in Colonial dress, said he was there not because of religious beliefs or to offer community support, but for “patriot reasons.”
"Our Founding Fathers would be appalled at what the country has turned into," said Fusia, who described himself as a history buff. "This country started as a republic and has turned into a democracy, which is exactly what the founding fathers did not want."
Fusia argued the Ten Commandments and the Christian faith cannot be separated from the country’s beginnings and play integral roles in its history.
"I graduated from here in 1974 and have been wondering since then when somebody would protest this," he said.
Ed Howell of New Kensington, who attends The River, a Community Church in New Kensington, and who wore a purple T-shirt saying, “I Am The Church,” feels as if Freedom From Religion Foundation is infringing on his beliefs.
"Depriving me of religion is much worse than making it an option for everyone else," he said. "We’re not forcing anything on them, but they are trying to deprive us of something that means a lot to all of us."
An opposing local view
Brian Abate of West Deer, who might have been the only one to attend the rally who agrees with the foundation, said: “My opinion is that this is unconstitutional. I think the courts have been pretty clear on that.”
Abate didn’t draw attention to himself and said he didn’t approach anyone in the crowd to make his beliefs known. He said he decided to attend after reading about Nickols’ plans to hold the rally.
"I don’t think the district should endorse any religion," said Abate, who described himself as an atheist with no ties to the foundation.
"The irony is, I have family members who belong to the Eagles and I support what the Eagles do," he said. "I just think they’re on the wrong side of the law with this one."
Dude. They are not infringing on your religious beliefs. They are pointing out - quite correctly - that that monument is unconstitutional.