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Published in Print: December 8, 1999, as Displays Entangle Ten Commandments, First Amendment

Displays Entangle Ten Commandments, First Amendment

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Bill Musselman can't see why anyone would object to posting the Ten Commandments in schools.

"I see it as a historical document," said Mr. Musselman, the superintendent of the 5,500-student Harlan County, Ky., schools. "If you took the words 'Ten Commandments' off the top and called it 'the 10 good things to live by,' maybe no one would complain about it."

Jeff Vessels, on the other hand, says the practice clearly violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment. He's the executive of the American Civil Liberties Union's Kentucky chapter, and his organization is suing the Harlan County district along with two counties that post the commandments in their courthouses.

"They are hanging one set of religious beliefs," Mr. Vessels said. "According to the courts, this is government promoting a particular religion."

The Harlan County school system is one of a number of districts that have been struggling over the issue in recent months.

In Harrisburg, Ill., a divided school board voted 4-3 last month to continue displaying the Ten Commandments in schools despite legal threats by the ACLU.

And the school board of the Val Verde Unified School District in Riverside County, Calif., recently reversed an earlier decision to post the commandments in district offices, conceding it could not afford to fight a lawsuit.

"We are in the business of educating children," said Robert Givens, the Val Verde school board president. "We didn't want to take any expenses out of our general fund for a lawsuit."

Meanwhile, state lawmakers in Florida, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Mississippi have considered legislation this year that would allow the posting of the commandments in schools and public buildings.

'Undeniably' Sacred Text

Kentucky has been battling over the Ten Commandments since at least 1978, when the state legislature enacted a law requiring that they be posted in school classrooms. The displays would have had to note that their intention was only to illustrate the history of American law. Even with that caveat, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the law in 1980 by a 5-4 vote in Stone v. Graham.

"The pre-eminent purpose for posting the Ten Commandments on schoolroom walls is plainly religious in nature," the court said in its majority opinion. "The Ten Commandments are undeniably a sacred text in the Jewish and Christian faiths, and no legislative recitation of a supposed secular purpose can blind us to that fact."

The shooting spree at Columbine High School in Jefferson County, Colo., last spring, which resulted in the deaths of 14 students and one teacher, revived interest in posting the Ten Commandments in many schools. Proponents saw it as a way to raise student awareness of basic moral values they believe are eroding.

In June, the U.S. House of Representatives passed an amendment to a juvenile-justice bill that would have allowed the posting of the Ten Commandments in public places. But the bill was held up in conference committee, and its future is in doubt.

State Rep. Bo Ausmus, a freshman Republican from Middlesboro, Ky., has proposed a bill in the Kentucky legislature that would allow voters in each school district to decide whether the commandments should be displayed in classrooms. Local school councils would be required to consider, but not approve, requests to display creeds or beliefs from other religions. The bill is expected to be considered by the legislature when it convenes in January.

Historical Context

In Harrisburg, Ill., the school board voted in October to post the Ten Commandments in principals' offices, along with the Bill of Rights and the Magna Carta. The board reaffirmed that decision in a vote Nov. 16.

Board President Roger Angelly said his decision to support the action was one of the hardest he had ever made.

"I have never dealt with an issue where I can see the points on both sides so clearly," he said. "We all realize that posting the Ten Commandments won't change everything, but it is a step in the right direction."

Bob Ozment, a board member who voted against posting the commandments, says he sees more agreement than division when it comes to the motivations behind having the Ten Commandments posted.

"We are all concerned about morality," Mr. Ozment said. "It is just the different ways you choose to approach it. I think we will find a middle ground somewhere. We want a better situation for our kids, a better atmosphere."

School board members in Harrisburg, a southeastern Illinois community of about 9,000, are now in the process of conferring with lawyers in hopes of finding a way to keep the commandments posted without violating the U.S. Constitution. The ACLU has threatened to file a lawsuit.

"I hope this doesn't have to go to court to be resolved," Mr. Angelly said. "We do not have the money in our system to fight this alone."

The Rutherford Institute, a conservative legal organization based in Charlottesville, Va., has supported the 2,300-student school system and could provide legal counsel if there is litigation.

"We don't support the posting of the Ten Commandments alone. That is clearly unconstitutional," said Steven H. Aden, the senior chief litigation counsel for the institute. "However, we feel if you place the Ten Commandments in the context of other historical documents you have a secular purpose. It is religion-neutral."

Vol. 19, Issue 15, Page 7

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