Southwestern Virginia school board votes to repost Ten Commandments display in schools

The Bluefield Daily Telegraph reports that the Giles County School Board has voted 3-2 to approve a group of documents including the Ten Commandments to be displayed in county schools. The board’s vote allows the display of the Ten Commandments along with other documents, such as the Declaration of Independence, Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, Mayflower Compact,  and Magna Charta, with no document being larger than another. All documents displayed would be provided through funding by private persons or organizations.The school board may also approve any other documents proposed by community members to be added to the display.

Board members Dr. J. Lewis Webb, Jr. and Drema McMahon voted against the display, citing the cost of litigation and the likelihood that the board’s action would be struck down in court as reasons for their dissenting votes.  McMahon said, “Outside interests have threatened to take legal action.”   She added, “We do not have the money to fight this battle to the Supreme Court. We have had no raises for any Giles County teacher in four years. It would cost an estimated $350,000 at least to fight this.” Webb pointed out that the “issue has been overturned many times by the Supreme Court.” He also said, “I find people are asking schools to do more and more to raise their children.”

On May 20, 2011, the school board  recessed rather than voting on whether or not to restore the biblical text in order to consider the current proposal. A four-foot-tall copy of the Ten Commandments was first hung on the walls of Giles County Schools more than a decade ago following the Columbine school shooting. The controversy over the display began in December 2010 when school officials took down the copy of the Ten Commandments, replacing them with a copy of the Declaration of Independence, following citizen complains.

Both the American Civil Liberties Union and the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion organization threatened legal action against the school system if the biblical texts were restored, stating that putting up the commandments was an unconstitutional government endorsement of Christianity. The Liberty Counsel, a non-profit Orlando, Fla.-based organization, has offered to support Giles County School Board if litigation results from the display. ACLU legal director Kent Willis said that, based on his understanding of the decision, reposting the documents would violate the Constitution’s separation of church and state doctrine. He also indicated that the ACLU plans to move forward with plans to litigate. The U.S. Supreme Court has previously ruled it unconstitutional for public schools to display the Ten Commandments.

Source: Bluefield Daily Telegraph, 6/8/11, By Kate Coil

[Editor’s Note: In February 2011, the Washington Post reported that Giles County’s long standing practice of posting a copy of the Ten Commandments in its public schools was being challenged by the ACLU and the FFRF.  School district officials contended that the display was constitutional because the commandments are a historical document, included as part of a monument to the principles,  some of them religious, on which the country was founded.  A summary of the article is available at the first link below.

In June 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court issued two decisions on the question of Ten Commandments displays on government property.

In Van Orden v. Perry, the Court ruled that a Ten Commandments display on the grounds of the Texas state capitol did not violate the establishment Clause. The Court’s plurality opinion, while conceding that the Commandments convey a religious message, argued that the context in which the they 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 of those standards and the law. A summary of the opinion is available at the second link below.

In McCreary County v. ACLU of Kentucky, on the other hand, the Court ruled that two courthouse displays of the Ten Commandments violate the Establishment Clause. At no stage of the litigation or prior to it, the Court concluded, had the counties taken a course of action that would survive the secular purpose prong of the Establishment Clause test laid out in Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 601 (1971). Rather, each successive change reinforced the dominant religious nature of the displays. The Court found that the counties’ displays shared many similarities with the classroom Ten Commandments display invalidated in Stone v. Graham, 449 U.S. 39 (1980). A summary of the opinion is available at the third link below.

Stone is the case referred to by the Bluefield Daily Telegraph.]

NSBA Legal Clips archive on Giles County Ten Commandments controversy

NSBA School Law Issues pages on Van Orden v. Perry

NSBA School Law Issues pages on McCreary County v. ACLU-KY

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