Debating the Decalogue
Legislators in North Carolina have cleared the way for schools to display the Ten Commandments, but through the lens of history, not religion.
A measure to let districts use documents associated with Christianity and Judaism, along with others “of historical significance that have formed and influenced the United States legal or governmental system and that exemplify the development of the rule of law,” was overwhelming approved by both the state Senate and House. Gov. Michael F. Easley, a Democrat, indicated he would sign the measure.
The rule was wrapped into legislation that also mandates that schools teach North Carolina history and geography and develop character education programs, starting in 2002-03.
Critics say the legislation will only encourage school districts to break the law.
“There hasn’t been a single situation where posting the Ten Commandments has been found to be permissible under the establishment clause of the First Amendment,” said Deborah K. Ross, the executive and legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, based in Raleigh.
Backers of the measure argued that students should be taught about the religious tenets that helped shape the nation.
The U.S. Supreme Court declined a request this past May to clarify under what circumstances it is constitutional to display the Ten Commandments on government property.
Advocates of displaying the commandments had urged the court to use the case involving a monument outside the Elkhart, Ind., municipal building to clarify its 1980 ruling in Stone v. Graham, which struck down a Kentucky law requiring the posting of the commandments in public schools.
Meanwhile, the Harlan County school system in Kentucky is appealing a U.S. District Court judge’s order earlier this summer requiring that the commandments be removed from the walls of public buildings.
—Kathleen Kennedy Manzo
A version of this article appeared in the August 08, 2001 edition of Education Week