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A different kind of courthouse battle brewing in Nelson County
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A different kind of courthouse battle brewing in Nelson County

Amid scaffolding, blueprints, exposed brick walls and chipping paint dispersed through the Nelson County Circuit Courtroom, 33 recently uncovered letters stand out.

Painted on the horizontal wood structure above Tuscan columns that support the balcony, the off-center, unevenly spaced letters form five words: Virtus — Keep God’s Commandments — Veritas.

Though the Latin words meaning “virtue” and “truth” and the English imperative — located directly across from seats for the judge and jury — likely hold the stories of nearly 200 years of history, whether they will remain in place remains to be seen.

The courtroom, which is undergoing extensive renovation, was known in decades past simply as the Nelson County Courthouse, the home of all legal activity. Court first was held in the courthouse Feb. 26, 1810. The building is an official Virginia Landmark and is listed on the Na-tional Register of Historic Places.

Until recently, the words — which could prove to be controversial because of their religious connotation and placement in the courtroom — had been completely hidden, covered by layers of paint.

“You would have never been able to tell it was there,” said Jim Vernon, an architect with Architectural Partners, the contracted firm for the renovation.

While Vernon and construction teams had some idea the lettering may have been there based on the 1973 National Register of Historic Places nomination, it took a team of specially contracted workers to determine whether the lettering did, in fact, exist. Randy Parr, owner and president of Lynchburg Restoration, the firm contracted to uncover the lettering, said his company came to look at the balcony and start work in March.

Parr said his company shone a high-intensity light across the surface of the balcony’s entablature — the wood structure resting on the columns supporting the balcony — to identify where the letters were and “give us some idea of what we were looking for.”

“At a snail’s pace” during the course of about a week, three men worked to uncover the lettering, Parr explained.

Parr said he thinks at least four coats of paint covered the lettering at the beginning of the restoration process. Each layer had to be softened by heating the surface with an infrared heater, allowing the men to “carefully and painstakingly” remove the paint, he said. The process was repeated several times before the letters were revealed fully.

Painting over the lettering, he said, “actually acted as a kind of protection.”

A ‘highly unusual’ piece of history

While there are a number of religious displays and holiday traditions some consider inappropriate in government-owned areas, the Nelson courtroom lettering is something not seen elsewhere in the commonwealth.

John O. Peters, a Virginia historian and co-author of “Virginia’s Historic Courthouses,” believes the lettering is “highly unusual” based on his research of courthouses in the state.

For the book he co-authored with his wife, Margaret Peters, John Peters studied 126 courthouses across Virginia, including Nelson County’s. Though he said he can’t call the lettering “unique,” since the original interiors of many courthouses have been altered over the years, John Peters does believe there likely isn’t another such religious inscription inside a courtroom in Virginia.

“It still strikes me, based on everything I know, as highly unusual,” he said.

Parr, who’s worked on more than 100 restoration projects in the Central Virginia area, including several courthouses, said he also has not seen anything like it inside a courtroom.

Documents and experts indicate the lettering first may have appeared in the 1830s in connection with the courthouse’s use for religious purposes.

Though there is no reference to the lettering, Joseph Martin’s 1835 “A New and Comprehensive Gazetteer of Virginia and the District of Columbia” explains the courthouse in Lovingston was used “as a place for public worship.” The different denominations, the gazetteer explains, were Methodist, Baptist and Presbyterian.

According to Peters, that usage makes sense when compared with the timeline of American history. Peters explained around the 1830s is when Christian denominations began to split from the Anglican Church. He added the newly formed congregations would have needed a meeting place, and courthouses made sense as the place of choice because they often were used for multiple purposes and centrally located.

There is no definite date for when the lettering was covered and no indication why it was painted over.

Nelson County Historical Society President Bob Carter said covering of the lettering may correspond with a 1940s renovation of the courthouse.

Anecdotal evidence points to it having been covered for at least 50 years. Parr said the paint on the entablature matches the paint on the trim work throughout the room.

Phil Payne IV, a Lovingston attorney who also serves as the county attorney, and Samantha Embrey, a Nelson resident who grew up in Lovingston, both remember playing in the courtroom as kids in the 1950s.

Missing from both of their memories is the lettering. Neither can recall seeing it.

What will happen to the lettering?

Vernon said the $5 million courthouse renovation project, which began in September 2015 and includes multiple changes to the four-building complex, could be complete by June.

Changes in the circuit courtroom represent the last phase of the project. It’s unclear what will happen to the lettering or when a decision will be made.

According to Payne, the Nelson County Board of Supervisors and Nelson County Circuit Court Judge Michael Garrett share responsibility for a decision on what should be done with the lettering.

The supervisors have authority over the county-owned building and the allocation of funds for the courthouse renovation project. The judge has say over what happens in the courtroom.

In an interview in March, Garrett wouldn’t comment on the pending decision that needs to be made.

Nelson’s five supervisors have offered varied opinions.

Thomas Bruguiere Jr. and Larry Saunders believe the lettering should remain in place.

“You can’t change history,” Bruguiere said. “I think we should leave it up, leave it alone. It shouldn’t offend anybody.”

Saunders said he believes “we should put God back in the courtroom and schools.”

The other three supervisors said they believe the judge has authority to decide, but each offered additional thoughts.

Chairman Tommy Harvey said he would like to see history preserved, and at this point, the supervisors aren’t worried about litigation. He said if a legal challenge arises, the county is “not going to back down from a fight.”

Supervisor Connie Brennan said in her opinion, it’s better to ensure the separation of church and state, including when it comes to legal proceedings.

Supervisor Allen Hale agreed, adding he thinks it makes sense to come up with a way to temporarily cover the lettering so it can be hidden when court is in session while still preserving the historical lettering.

According to Hale and Vernon, some preliminary, informal discussions have taken place privately with Garrett.

Vernon and County Administrator Stephen Carter said a temporary covering could be installed for when court is in session, or the lettering could be painted over permanently.

Another option is to leave the lettering as it stands now, or a subcontractor may be hired to enhance it by touching up the letters with paint and painting around the rest of the balcony’s entablature.

The piece of the entablature containing the lettering also could be removed completely, perhaps to be placed elsewhere in the courtroom so as to preserve the historical significance.

Is a legal battle looming?

Nelson residents, law experts and others believe there likely will be a legal fight over the words.

Doug Laycock, a professor at the University of Virginia’s School of Law and an expert on reli-gious freedom law, said if the lettering is left up, a person or organization will say it should be taken down. If it’s removed, the other side will argue it should be preserved in place.

“Someone’s going to challenge this,” he said.

According to Laycock, a legal case for taking down the lettering would be based in the First Amendment.

Laycock believes the lettering violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which says there shall be no law made “respecting the establishment of a religion,” because of its position in a courtroom.

He called the lettering “explicitly religious” and added its position in the courtroom, directly opposite a judge and jury, “aggravates the problem.”

“It’s telling these legal decision makers who are applying secular law that they should keep their religious obligations in mind,” Laycock said.

Peter Frazier, a Lovingston attorney, added arguments for removing the lettering probably would include the Fifth and Sixth amendments, which guarantee the rights to due process and an impartial jury, respectively.

Laycock, Frazier and Lovingston attorney Heather Goodwin said if a legal challenge is brought, outside firms may be interested in representing a side.

If the county loses such a case, Laycock said, costs could start to add up quickly. The cost would depend on whether the county hires outside counsel, how far the case goes and on representation. Laycock estimated costs could total $100,000 on the low end to $500,000 if it gets to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“If it stays up,” Goodwin said of the lettering, “the county’s going to have a problem.”

As an attorney based in Nelson who would represent clients in that courtroom, Frazier said the more he thinks about the issue, the more he sees himself challenging the constitutionality of the words.

“As a defense attorney, I probably don’t want it up there,” he said, explaining he thinks there is a possibility a jury would be considering religious values rather than just the laws of Virginia in deliberating a case.

Frazier said if a client “had any suspicion that it would in any way unduly influence a jury or a judge,” he would challenge it.

Legal minds, leaders react

There is no dearth of opinions on the best route for the future of the unusual artifact.

Laycock and Frazier agree the piece of the entablature containing the lettering should be re-moved and placed alongside a series of panels explaining the courthouse complex’s history, which already is in place elsewhere in the building.

The two said the option wouldn’t completely eliminate the possibility of litigation, but it greatly reduces the chances.

“I think that is the wise thing for the county to do in the sense that it would avoid litigation probably,” Frazier said. “It’s much more likely that somebody would litigate it if it stayed up then it would be if it was taken down.”

Frazier said while he appreciates the historical significance of the words, the rights of parties involved in any kind of legal matter taking place in the courthouse “must win out.”

“I think it’s a really impressive historical artifact, a really interesting historical artifact that tells us so much about the people of Nelson County at the time it was put up,” he said. “ … But where it is, it is in such a delicate place where we have taken such pain over the past 400 years to make sure that specific space is so neutral and so sterilized and so focused solely on the facts presented in a case that it is too fraught with problems for it to remain up.

“… It is changing history, but I think it’s a constitutionally required changing of history.”

Speaking personally, Nelson County Democratic Committee Chairman Conny Roussos said “God’s commandments” are not to be considered in a courtroom where decisions should be made based solely on Virginia laws.

Also speaking personally, Nelson County Republican Committee Chairman Carlton Ballowe said he would like to see the lettering stay in place, explaining he thinks the reference to God could refer to any supreme being, not just the God of Christianity.

Bob Carter said while he understands the dilemma, as a historian, he hopes the historical find can be preserved.

“We want to leave our marks beside the marks of history,” he said. “We don’t want to erase the marks of history.”

Goodwin also finds herself in the “keep it” camp, even though she thinks it ultimately will be covered or removed.

“Gone are the days where a witness was placed under oath with the statement of ‘so help you God.’ … I am hopeful that the county will choose to preserve this item as an artifact of our local legal history,” she said.

Nelson County Commonwealth’s Attorney Daniel Rutherford, who soon will prosecute cases in the courtroom, said, “It’s an amazing historical find. … History should be kept; it should be preserved. How and where, I leave that up to the board of supervisors and the judge.”

Contact Emily Brown at (434) 385-5553 or ebrown@newsadvance.comFacebook: The Nelson County Times.

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