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Published in Print: February 16, 2000, as Commandments Debate Moves To Statehouses

Commandments Debate Moves To Statehouses

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Legislators in at least 10 states are considering bills that promote the display of the Ten Commandments in schools, and a few of the measures have recently advanced.

Last week, the Indiana House voted 92-7 in favor of a bill authorizing the display of the Judeo-Christian commandments in schools, courthouses, and other public buildings "along with other documents of historical significance that have formed and influenced the United States' legal or governmental system." The state Senate approved a similar measure last month, and the two versions will have to be reconciled before a bill can be sent to the governor.

The Hoosier State's approach is one being tried by proponents in several other states. They want to authorize the display of the Ten Commandments by including them in a larger presentation of documents that form the foundation of American law.

"I think that would make it completely constitutional," state Rep. Jerry L. Denbo, an Indiana Democrat, said in an interview. "For too long, this country has gotten away from its founding principles. Our laws are based on the principles of the Ten Commandments."

Mr. Denbo and other proponents say they are well aware that the U.S. Supreme Court in 1980 struck down a Kentucky law requiring that the Ten Commandments be posted on public school walls. The lawmakers say their bills are distinguishable from the Kentucky statute.

Proponents make similar claims about a bill pending before the Colorado legislature, even though it goes much further than the historical-document model. The measure would require a moment of silence at the beginning of each school day and the posting of the Ten Commandments in each public school classroom. To the surprise of legislative observers in the state, the bill cleared a Senate committee Feb. 2 and could come before the full Senate this week.

Columbine Killings Invoked

The Colorado bill was sponsored by Sen. John Andrews, a Republican who has cited last spring's killings at Columbine High School in Jefferson County, Colo., as the reason it is necessary to post the commandments in schools.

"I have been concerned over the years about the corrosive effect of value-free education," he said in an interview. "Columbine was the last straw. What can we do to have no more Columbines?"

Mr. Andrews said posting the Ten Commandments isn't the only answer to the problem of violence in schools. But it is one step toward making "students better citizens and making school a more civilized place," he said.

His bill goes so far as to dictate the wording of the commandments to be displayed in classrooms— not a small point considering that different religious denominations cast the Decalogue differently. The bill calls for using "a compromise version developed by interfaith scholars" for an existing monument on the grounds of the state Capitol.

"These are the commandments the people of Colorado have had in their front yard for the past 60 years," Mr. Andrews said, referring to the monument.

Several Democrats in the Colorado Senate held a press conference last week to criticize the measure. One of them, Sen. Doug Linkhart, told reporters: "Moral education is for Sundays. This is Monday."

Phil Fox, the lobbyist for the Colorado Association of School Executives, said the Ten Commandments measure was "a frivolous attempt to get a lot of press coverage. It has nothing to do with the public schools." He and others predict that the bill will advance no further.

In the face of such criticism, Mr. Andrews said he would be willing to modify the bill to simply authorize that the commandments be posted in classrooms, rather than mandate their display.

From Courts to Capitols

The contemporary drive to promote displays of the Ten Commandments first gained impetus in 1997 when state Judge Roy Moore of Etowah County, Ala., refused requests from civil-liberties groups to remove them from his courtroom. His defiance spawned a state lawsuit that was dismissed for technical reasons, as well as the ongoing national movement.

Last June, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 248- 180 in favor of a measure that would authorize states to permit displays of the commandments. The measure was an amendment to a juvenile-crime bill that is in limbo in Congress.

This school year, some districts have chosen to display the commandments or have had community debate about the issue. ("Displays Entangle Ten Commandments, First Amendment," Dec. 8, 1999.)

Now that the state legislative season is in full swing, the Ten Commandments debate has moved to statehouses around the country.

In South Dakota, the Senate passed a bill Jan. 24 that would permit educators to post a copy of "any religious document or text," including the Ten Commandments.

In Illinois, a state representative from Harrisburg has proposed a bill permitting the display of historical documents. The Harrisburg school board voted last November to post the Ten Commandments along with copies of the Bill of Rights and the Magna Carta, but rescinded the vote in December because of fears of a legal challenge.

Residents of southern Illinois who support the bill proposed by Rep. James D. Fowler, a Democrat, have been wearing white ribbons as part of a "Raise the Standard" campaign.

In Kentucky, whose 1978 law was struck down by the Supreme Court in Stone v. Graham, several bills have been introduced in this year's legislature. The first to move was a resolution approved by a Senate committee that encourages schools to post the commandments.

Other states considering such bills include Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, and Oklahoma.

Plato and Jesus

Civil-liberties advocates say the Ten Commandments bills raise problems on several fronts.

"When they are put up to inspire people, they are promoting religion in violation of the U.S. Constitution," said Barry W. Lynn, the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

As for the Colorado bill that prescribes the exact wording of the Ten Commandments to be posted in school classrooms, Mr. Lynn said "the state legislature has no purpose or competence to make that judgment."

Marc D. Stern, a legal scholar who is a co-director of the Commission on Law and Social Action of the American Jewish Congress, said the bills calling for displays of the Ten Commandments along with other historical documents might survive a constitutional challenge. Such displays would likely be analyzed under the Supreme Court's bewildering body of decisions regarding holiday religious displays, he said.

"If it was part of a larger context that illustrated all of the sources of Western law, it might have a chance," said Mr. Stern. "But putting Plato up with Jesus is not likely to make a lot of people who are pushing this law very happy."

And if the Ten Commandments were clearly the centerpiece of such a historical display, then it would be less likely to be upheld, Mr. Stern added.

Besides the legal questions, opponents scoff at the policy arguments put forth by supporters of Ten Commandments displays in the public schools.

"The talismanic belief that if you simply post the Ten Commandments, you are going to ward off another Columbine is insulting," Mr. Stern said.

Mr. Lynn said: "Posting documents does not lead to changes in behaviors. But in a day when simple solutions are what politicians gather towards, there is little wonder we see this."

Vol. 19, Issue 23, Pages 18,21

Web Resources
  • Here is the House vote tally on the Ten Commandments amendment sponsored by Rep. Robert B. Aderholt, R-Ala.
  • Read a legal review and analysis of the Religious Freedom Amendment, a 1998 proposal to change the Constitution to permit prayer in public schools, from Rep. Ernest J. Istook Jr., R-Okla. The amendment was defeated in the House of Representatives June 1998 by 62 votes.
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