It’s not every day that a school board votes unanimously to ignore legal advice, defy Supreme Court precedent and invite litigation.
But that’s exactly what happened earlier this month in Giles County, Va., when members of the board ordered school administrators to hang the Ten Commandments on the walls of the county’s five public schools.
Rehang, actually. Until December 2010, framed copies of the Decalogue had been displayed in schools alongside copies of the Constitution for more than 10 years. Following a complaint from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the district’s superintendent (on the recommendation of counsel) took the commandments down.
Many county residents were not happy. At the school board meeting on Jan. 20, hundreds of people demanded that the Ten Commandments be returned to schoolhouse walls — and the board enthusiastically agreed. The next day, the commandments went back up.
According to The Roanoke Times, one resident told the board: “You have a moral obligation to what is right. Do not let our children be deprived of this right — a God-given right.” The crowd cheered and shouted “Amen.”
There appears to be some confusion in southwest Virginia about what rights are protected as “God-given” under our Constitution. Residents of Giles County, like all Americans, are guaranteed the right to practice their faith — a freedom that our Framers did, indeed, believe to be given by God. But there is no constitutional “right,” God-given or otherwise, to use government to promote religion.
On the contrary, the First Amendment’s prohibition of state establishment of religion (modeled on Virginia’s Statute for Religious Freedom drafted by Thomas Jefferson) is intended to guard the God-given right of every person to choose in matters of faith without government interference.
In 1980, the U.S. Supreme Court invoked the “no establishment” principle in the First Amendment to strike down a Kentucky law requiring the Decalogue on the walls of public school classrooms.
“Posting of religious texts on the wall serves no educational purpose,” said the Court in Stone v. Graham. “If the posted copies of the Ten Commandments are to have any effect at all, it will be to induce the school children to read, meditate upon, perhaps to venerate and obey, the Commandments. However desirable this might be as a matter of private devotion, it is not a permissible state objective under the Establishment Clause.”
Giles County school officials may believe that putting the commandments next to the Constitution sends a legally permissible secular message, given a 2005 Supreme Court decision upholding the inclusion of a Decalogue monument with 16 other monuments on the Texas State Capitol grounds (Van Orden v. Perry). Although where to draw the line remains murky in some cases, the prominence of the commandments as one of only two documents in the Giles County displays would not likely pass constitutional muster.
Taking down the commandments in the hallway doesn’t mean banning the Ten Commandments from public schools. Teachers can and should teach about the meaning and significance of the Ten Commandments in history courses (and may temporarily post them in classrooms as a teaching aid).
Moreover, high school students may form religious clubs where they are free to gather for devotional study of scriptures. Students on any grade level may bring scriptures to school, share their faith with classmates and otherwise express their faith — as long as they don’t interfere with the rights of others or disrupt the school.
If the Giles County school board members are truly interested in protecting “God-given rights,” they should reverse course and bar the county’s schools from permanently posting the Ten Commandments on the walls. And then they should adopt policies that make clear the appropriate place of the Ten Commandments (or any scripture) in public schools under the First Amendment.
Unfortunately, that’s not likely to happen. Giles County officials appear determined to promote the majority faith in public schools, even if it means fighting an expensive (and futile) court battle.
As private citizens, school board members are free to honor God’s Law. But as public servants, they are duty-bound to uphold the Constitution by ensuring that public schools do not take sides in religion.
About the author: Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001. Web: http://www.firstamendmentcenter.org. E-mail:firstname.lastname@example.org.