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Thou shalt not display the Ten Commandments at a public school?

May 10, 2012|By Richard Simon
  • The Ten Commandments hang at Narrows High School alongside documents including the Bill of Rights and the Magna Carta.
The Ten Commandments hang at Narrows High School alongside documents including… (Matt Gentry / The Roanoke…)

Is displaying the Ten Commandments alongside copies of the Declaration of Independence, the Star-Spangled Banner, Magna Carta and other documents at a Virginia public high school an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion? Or is it part of an educational exhibit of historic documents?

Those questions are at the heart of a long-simmering legal fight in a small Appalachian Mountains county.

The Ten Commandments and a copy of the U.S. Constitution were on display at Narrows High School for more than a decade. But the commandments were removed after the Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation, acting on behalf of an unnamed resident, objected in late 2010 to the Giles County school board that the display violated the constitutional requirement for separation of church and state.

That set off community protests. About 200 students walked out of class last year. Pro-commandment lawn signs popped up around town, folks wore T-shirts bearing the commandments and packed school board meetings demanding them back. In response, the commandments were put back up with other historic documents on a hallway wall near the school's trophy case -- and a lawsuit followed.

The high school student and his or her parent who filed the suit, which seeks to remove the commandments, are identified as Doe 1 and 2 because they fear harassment. Their lawyers have received e-mails such as: "Satan is very proud of you."

The school board says the display of the commandments with other "equally sized framed historic documents contribute to the educational foundations and moral character of students."

"The displays do not evidence endorsement of religion, but recognize numerous documents and principles that have significantly contributed to the development of the law in the Commonwealth of Virginia and the United States," Liberty Counsel, representing the school board, said in court papers. The Orlando, Fla.-based group describes itself as "dedicated to advancing religious freedom, the sanctity of life, and the family.''

The plaintiffs' attorneys, the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia and the Freedom from Religion Foundation, disagree.

"There is a world of difference," the groups said in court papers, between using the Ten Commandments in a classroom discussion where a teacher can ensure that the material is taught in a neutral position and hanging them on the wall, which implies government endorsement.

The Supreme Court in 2005 issued split decisions in Ten Commandments cases. It struck down the posting of the commandments in Kentucky county courthouses but upheld the granite monument displaying the Ten Commandments that sat among other statues and monuments on the grounds of the Texas Capitol, both in 5-4 decisions.

As a potential compromise, federal Judge Michael F. Urbanski raised the idea of posting only the last six commandments because they don't mention God.

Out would go: I am the Lord thy God, thou shalt have no other Gods before me; Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven images; Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; and Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.

Suitable for public display would be: Honor thy father and thy mother; Thou shalt not kill; Thou shalt not commit adultery; Thou shalt not steal; Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor and Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's goods.

"It was a novel idea that none of us had considered before," said Mathew Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel.

But, Staver noted, other documents have a reference to God, including the Declaration of Independence or the Magna Carta.

"If the school board were to edit the Ten Commandments, it would be the only document that would be edited among the 29 framed documents, he said. "It would make the Ten Commandments look odd."

He has not discussed this proposal with his client.

Rebecca Glenberg, legal director at the ACLU of Virginia, said in an interview that she couldn't discuss the judge's idea before a court-ordered mediation effort.

"There was a lot of discussion within the community that made it very clear that the community received this as a religious issue, and not merely one about education," Glenberg said.

The plaintiffs have filed court papers listing comments made by residents of the county of about 18,000 on the western edge of the state who have rallied in support of the commandments. One comment: "This is Giles County and Christ is a big, big, big part of Giles County. For those who don't like it, go somewhere else."

Liberty Counsel, in court papers, accuses the plaintiffs of "attempting to require that the school board sanitize any religious reference whatsoever from district facilities. The Constitution does not require such an action."

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richard.simon@latimes.com


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