FFRF, ACLU prevail in Giles County, Va.

U.S. District Court Judge Michael Urbanski accepted a settlement July 3 and ended the lawsuit between a Giles County, Va., parent and student and the Giles County School Board. Attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia and the Freedom From Religion Foundation filed the suit last fall. 

The school board has agreed that the Ten Commandments will not be posted in any school “unless and until there is precedent in the Fourth Circuit or United States Supreme Court allowing the posting of the text of the Ten Commandments in the public schools.” 

Supreme Court precedent states that such postings are impermissible. The Supreme Court ruled in Stone v. Graham that Ten Commandments displays in public schools violate the Establishment Clause.

“No government authorities, including school officials, have the right to tell citizens, much less a captive audience of students, which god to worship, how many gods to worship or whether to worship any god at all,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president. 

FFRF first contested the postings in Giles County schools in December 2010 on behalf of a local complainant. State/church watchdog FFRF has more than 19,000 members, including about 500 in Virginia. 

In response to the complaint, Superintendent Terry Arbogast removed the Ten Commandments from Giles County schools in January 2011. They had been posted in a frame with the U.S. Constitution in all district schools for over a decade. Members of local churches were outraged and stormed the school board seeking to reinstall the Ten Commandments. Students at one school walked out of classes in protest. Some students called for people objecting to the displays to “go live somewhere else.” 

The board voted to repost them and adopted a policy to allow displays of the Ten Commandments and nine other “historical documents” in schools. The board also approved a Ten Commandments display in Narrows High School in Narrows, a town of about 2,000. 

A Narrows student and parent sued in September 2011. The plaintiffs sought a protective order shielding their identity because of the animus expressed by the public. Liberty Counsel, a Christian legal group affiliated with Liberty University, represented the board and filed a brief opposing the ability of the plaintiffs to use pseudonyms. Urbanski issued a protective order, saying in part, “no harassment, threats, intimidation, or interference with the plaintiffs will be tolerated.” 

During the course of litigation, other items were added to the Narrows High School display, including portraits and select items on George Washington, Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson. In May, 26 items were on display.

Urbanski’s approval of the settlement ended the long and contentious dispute. In addition to assurances that the Commandments would not be reposted in school, the settlement agreement kept the protective order in effect. The school board or a third party would pay the plaintiffs’ legal costs ($6,511). Each side is responsible for their own attorney fees.

Recent changes by the school board and the settlement agreement altered some elements of the display. A page from a Prentice Hall U.S. history textbook replaced the Ten Commandments. The page includes an infographic titled “Roots of Democracy” and includes statements on “Judeo-Christian Roots,” “The Enlightenment,” “English Parliamentary Traditions” and “Greco-Roman Roots.” References to the Commandments were removed from a separate “explanation document” in the display. 

The court retains jurisdiction to enforce the settlement for eight years following dismissal of the case. 

“FFRF thanks the courageous student and parent who stood up for the U.S. Constitution. We are grateful for the dedicated work of the attorneys on the case, Rebecca Glenberg and Thomas Fitzpatrick of the ACLU of Virginia, Frank Feibelman, cooperating attorney for the ACLU, and Patrick Elliott from FFRF,” said FFRF Co-President Dan Barker.

Freedom From Religion Foundation