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Published in Print: February 1, 2000, as Writing On The Wall

Writing On The Wall

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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 "I see it as a historical document," says Musselman, superintendent of the 5,500-student Harlan County, Kentucky, school district. "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."

Bill Musselman can't see why anyone would object to posting the Ten Commandments in schools. "I see it as a historical document," says Musselman, superintendent of the 5,500-student Harlan County, Kentucky, school district. "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."

Of course, someone did complain. The Kentucky chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union recently sued the Harlan County school system as well as two counties that post the commandments in courthouses. The group claims that officials in the three jurisdictions are violating the U.S. Constitution's prescribed separation of church and state. "They are hanging one set of religious beliefs," says Jeff Vessels, the group's executive director. "According to the courts, this is government promoting a particular religion."

This clash of viewpoints is by no means unique to the Bluegrass State. Last spring's shooting spree at Columbine High School in Jefferson County, Colorado, revived interest in posting the Ten Commandments in schools to promote basic moral values. In Harrisburg, Illinois, a divided school board voted 4-3 in November to continue displaying the Ten Commandments in schools despite legal threats by the ACLU. Meanwhile, the school board of the Val Verde Unified School District in Riverside County, California, 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," says Robert Givens, the Val Verde school board president. "We didn't want to take any expenses out of our general fund for a lawsuit."

The fresh debate hinges on interpretations of Stone vs. Graham, a 20-year-old U.S. Supreme Court case. In 1978, Kentucky enacted a law requiring that the commandments be displayed in classrooms, along with a note stating that they were there purely to illustrate the history of American law. Even with that caveat, however, the Supreme Court struck down the law by a 5-4 vote. "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."

Despite the emphatic ruling, state lawmakers in Florida, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Mississippi are considering legislation that would allow the posting of the commandments. State Representative Bo Ausmus, a freshman Republican from Middlesboro, Kentucky, has proposed a bill in the Kentucky legislature that would let voters in each school district decide the issue locally. School councils would be required to consider, but not necessarily approve, requests to display creeds or beliefs from other religions.

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

In Harrisburg, Illinois, where the school board recently voted to post the Ten Commandments in principals' offices, along with the Bill of Rights and the Magna Carta, officials have asked lawyers to look for loopholes that will allow them to keep the commandments up on the wall. "I have never dealt with an issue where I can see the points on both sides so clearly," says board president Roger Angelly, who supports posting the commandments.

Bob Ozment, a board member who voted against the posting, says he sees more agreement than division on the issue. "We are all concerned about morality," Ozment observes. "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."

—John Gehring

Vol. 11, Issue 5, Pages 16-17

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