The Freedom From Religion Foundation is keeping the heat on Giles County Public Schools in Pearisburg, Va., to ensure that Ten Commandments displays don’t reappear in school buildings. More than a few Christians in the area are livid that they are being asked to abide by the law. Students have staged a walkout to protest the Commandments being removed.
FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott first complained about the violation Dec. 8 on behalf of a local resident who objected to a Commandments display in the hallway of Macy McClaugherty Elementary and Middle School. Superintendent Terry Arbogast replied Dec. 17 that the display, and similar ones in other district buildings, would be removed during Christmas break and replaced with “another historical document.” Then the School Board, overwhelmed by public complaints led by two clergy, voted 5-0 on Jan. 20 to flout the Constitution and flaunt the Commandments.
FFRF responded that unless the district removed the clearly unconstitutional displays, a lawsuit would be filed. Elliott called the vote “a disgrace evidencing a total disregard for the Constitution and the rule of law.” He warned the School Board, “Do not be duped by possible offers from Religious Right [legal] groups. They may volunteer some time, but they never pick up the plaintiffs’ tab.”
FFRF located two school district families who agreed to be co-plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit, with Elliott and Rebecca Glenberg, ACLU of Virginia attorney, acting as co-counsel. The suit would be filed in U.S. District Court in Roanoke. Mat Staver of Liberty Counsel offered Giles County support. Arbogast warned the School Board that fighting a suit could cost the district $300,000.
“Plaintiffs with children in the schools have come forward,” Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president, announced to media in Virginia. “They’re our heroes.”
The board then held a special meeting Feb. 22 and voted to remove the Commandments in all buildings. The same day, the U.S. Supreme Court declined without comment to hear a Liberty Counsel appeal challenging a ruling that struck down the display of the Ten Commandments inside two Kentucky courthouses [see State/Church Bulletin on page 19].
After the vote, Arbogast ambiguously wrote FFRF on Feb. 22 “no display containing the Ten Commandments will be posted in our schools without express approval of the Giles County School Board.”
Elliott responded that removing the displays was a wise decision. “Along with the ACLU of Virginia, we are monitoring the situation to ensure that the School Board does not attempt to skirt the law and put the Ten Commandments back into Giles County schools. Any such attempts to violate the Constitution and Supreme Court precedent would constitute a losing legal battle for the School Board. It is evident that this issue has been divisive in the community. This is precisely why the First Amendment protects citizens from government-sponsored religious messages.”
The Roanoke Times strongly criticized state and local officials in a Feb. 11 editorial. “In 2004, a student complained, but no one fixed the problem.
“Not only does the display violate the First Amendment, but it also goes against the Virginia Board of Education’s ‘Guidelines Concerning Religious Activity in the Public Schools,’ ” the paper said.
The editorial concluded, “A clear statement from the state board denouncing Giles County’s decision for noncompliance with the state guidelines on religion in the school would bring welcome clarity to the current dispute. It might even convince local officials to reconsider their decision to play favorites with religion and violate the Constitution.”
The board has a regular meeting set for March 15. FFRF and the ACLU are analyzing documents received after filing an open records request related to the displays.
The Roanoke Times reported March 9 that “a small group of students” stayed out of high school classes March 7 to protest removal of the Commandments. Student Dustin Dowdy said he spent about three hours outside the school by himself on March 8, then went home because he got cold. He said his participation in the protest drew a three-day, off-campus suspension.
Television stations reported tensions running high in area schools, in part involving students who were labeled as “atheists” for opposing the Commandments displays. A Christian club ordered T-shirts bearing the Commandments.
Gaylor noted the difference between private speech by students and unlawful government speech promoting religion.