Atheist, 84, Wants Ten Commandments Out Of Courtroom -- N. Carolina Town's Residents Irate Over Man's Lawsuit

WAYNESVILLE, N.C. - At 84, Richard Suhre has nothing to lose.

He zips up and down the mountains of western North Carolina in his battered burgundy Chevy Cavalier, bumper stickers shouting his obstinate message to the God-fearing people of Haywood County.

"Hatred is NOT a family value," says one. "License RU 486: The Moral Property of Women," says another, referring to the abortion pill.

Now, Suhre has turned his considerable fury on the Haywood County Courthouse and a sight that has rankled him for years. There in the main courtroom behind the judge's bench are carved the Ten Commandments - God's original laws handed down to Moses, now towering over a courtroom serving the laws of North Carolina.

Suhre doesn't believe in God. An atheist and a member of the American Civil Liberties Union, he believes the display of the commandments violates the Constitution's First Amendment clause guaranteeing freedom of religion. He's suing the county in federal court to have the tablets removed.

"I am very tired of being dictated to by the pious," Suhre says. "For several years, I have been objecting to the biblical writing on the walls of the courthouse. First, because it's an advertisement for the church on public property. Second, because the Jesus freaks on the jury will read the laws of Moses and make their decisions on the laws of Moses instead of the law of North Carolina.

"The point is this: I've had my bellyful of living the way the

Jesus freaks would have me live."

The county argues that Suhre (pronounced surry) has no case. The county's attorney, Steve Ellis, says Suhre can't just bring up the issue to debate it in court. He has to show he was harmed by it. And the county contends he wasn't.

"The courts have said they're not just a debating society. There has to be a real controversy, even if it's a constitutional issue as vital as freedom of religion," Ellis says. "We don't think other than just being around and not liking it, Mr. Suhre has sufficient standing to bring the case."

The county commissioners have also voted unanimously to keep the commandments. "I will be willing to go to jail before I see them taken down," says county commissioner Grover Bradshaw.

Waynesville hardware-store owner Jack Wadham has made it his personal mission to save the commandments. The day he read about Suhre's suit in the Waynesville Mountaineer, Wadham started a petition supporting the county. He now has more than 16,000 signatures - about a third of the county's residents.

Wadham also wants to file a class-action suit for damages against Suhre. He argues that the Constitution is the document of a Christian nation. He says Suhre advocates treason and "genocide of the Republic of America by destroying the very foundation and building blocks of the national government itself."

Wadham also says Suhre is trying to further the goals of the ACLU, a group he calls "admitted Communists pledged to install in America a Bolshevik revolution."

Suhre is a retired electrical engineer, an Indiana native who moved to Waynesville from Trenton, N.J., in 1975. He and his wife, Margaret, were attracted to the lovely green tranquillity of the Smoky Mountains. Suhre is a fireball, with a shock of white hair, an impish grin and thick black-framed glasses that hide intense blue eyes.

"I knew I was getting into the Bible Belt," says Suhre.

But the Bible Belt didn't know what it was getting.

"He has a long history of raising issues that irritate people," says his son, Peter Suhre, a Haywood Community College instructor.

You'll hear no arguments from Richard Suhre about his curmudgeonly ways. There's the time he stood outside the Waynesville Mountaineer newspaper office handing out copies of his letters to the editor advocating abortion rights. He says the paper refused to print them.

"I'm the only one with guts enough to argue with the leaders that say abortion is murder," he says.

And, there's the time he barked like a dog at a county commissioners meeting because they didn't let him speak.

Suhre objected to an ordinance allowing dog barking in the daytime. If the ordinance passed, he threatened to come to the daytime meetings and bark.

He kept his word.

"I am doing the things which all my life I have wanted to do," he says. "When I was in a profession, I could not be militant about my beliefs. When I retired, my income was not dependent on people liking me."

It's a good thing.

Many of the people of Waynesville would like to run Richard Suhre out of town on a rail.

Two years ago, Suhre was charged with harassing a neighbor by telephoning him every time his dog barked. In court, Suhre refused to swear to God on a Bible.

Suhre was convicted.

He turned his attention to the tablets. Acting as his attorney, Suhre sued the county in federal court on Sept. 19.

The suit argues that the commandments should be removed because they violate the First Amendment. The "establishment clause" says: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

The commandments, carved into two 20- by 31-inch marble tablets, have been there since the courthouse was built in 1931. Between them is a statue known as "Blind Justice" - a blindfolded woman holding a set of scales, signifying justice will be meted out fairly.

Duke University constitutional-law professor William Van Alstyne says Suhre's position has been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1980, the court ruled unconstitutional a Kentucky law requiring the posting of the Ten Commandments in public schools.

Attorney George Daly won a similar case in Mecklenburg County involving separation of church and state. In 1989, the North Carolina Civil Liberties Union and five Charlotte attorneys sued District Judge William Constangy for opening his proceedings with a prayer. And last year, two men won a suit to remove a copy of the Ten Commandments that hung in the Cobb County Courthouse near Atlanta.