Virginia school board votes to return Ten Commandments displays to schools

According to the Roanoke Times, the Giles County School Board, in a unanimous vote, decided to return the Ten Commandments displays to its schools, despite the school district attorney’s recommendation and precedent from the U.S. Supreme Court. The board had agreed to remove the displays in December 2010 after a request from the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) to Giles Superintendent Terry Arbogast .  FFRF asserted that such a display in public schools violates the Constitution. The school district attorney agreed, so the district removed the prints. FFRF’s attorney, Patrick Elliott, told the district that a resident had notified the foundation about the commandments on display at Macy McClaugherty Elementary/Middle School in Pearisburg.

Elliott cited a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, the 1980 Stone v. Graham Supreme Court ruling, and other cases. Stone v. Graham ruled unconstitutional a Kentucky statute that required public school classrooms to display the commandments.  The Establishment Clause states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” Though the district had replaced the Ten Commandments prints with copies of the Declaration of Independence in mid-December, Arbogast didn’t hear from many parents until [the third week in January], he said. The district didn’t notify parents of the change, and many learned of it through word of mouth.

After the vote at the January 2011 school board meeting, board Chairman J.B. Buckland informed the audience that the district would take the matter to court if needed. FFRF’s co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor expressed anger over the school board’s vote. “Anybody with any common sense could see why you cannot put religious dogma on the walls of the school,” she said. “This is just a travesty; it’s shocking.” The foundation now is seeking parents of children in the school system who could serve as plaintiffs in a lawsuit. The foundation likely could keep them confidential. In the meantime, the foundation intends to pressure the school board, she said. “This is so sad that we have a superintendent do the right thing and uphold the Constitution and this kind of mob mentality would overrule him,” she said.

Source: Roanoke Times, 1/21/11, By Katelyn Polantz and Lerone Graham

[Editor's Note: Not discussed by FRFF are two 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decisions regarding the constitutionality of Ten Commandments displays on government property. In McCreary County v. American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky, the Court held, in a 5-4 split, that two courthouse displays of the Ten Commandments violated the Establishment Clause. The Court rejected the counties’ argument that the secular purpose prong of Lemon should be abandoned because “true ‘purpose’ is unknowable” and its use as a criterion is “merely an excuse for courts to act selectively and unpredictably in picking out evidence of subjective intent.” As for the counties’ suggestion that the purpose prong be modified so that any governmental claim of secular purpose would be accepted without resorting to context or history, the Court found that this would render the purpose inquiry meaningless; deference is owed a government’s stated purpose, but Lemon requires that the purpose not be a sham or be merely secondary to a religious purpose. A summary of the opinion is available at the first link below.

In Van Orden v. Perry, however, a plurality of the Supreme Court justices concluded that a Ten Commandments display on the grounds of the Texas state capitol did not violate the Establishment Clause. The plurality opinion, while conceding that Ten Commandments convey a religious message, argued that the context in which the Ten Commandments are used demonstrates that the display also conveys a secular moral message about proper standards of social conduct and a message about the historical significance those standards and the law. It distinguished the Court’s holding in Stone v. Graham, 449 U.S. 39 (1980), which disallowed a classroom Ten Commandments display, as the “consequence of the ‘particular concerns that arise in the context of public elementary and secondary schools.’” Nothing in Stone, the plurality argued, would extend its holding “beyond the context of public schools.” A summary of the opinion is available at the second link below.

NSBA School Law Issues pages on McCreary County v. American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky

NSBA School Law Issues pages on Van Orden v. Perry

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