Virginia judge sends commandments suit to mediator

U.S. District Judge Michael Urbanski, Western District of Virginia in Roan­oke, heard oral arguments May 7 in a case brought by a student and parent over a school Ten Commandments display. In an unexpected move, the judge referred the case to mediation. If no settlement is reached, he’ll rule on both parties’ motions for summary judgment.

FFRF and the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia sued the School Board of Giles County, Va., last September for unconstitutionally endorsing religion by displaying the Ten Commandments in a hallway at Narrows High School in Narrows.

FFRF originally objected to the display in December 2010 when the commandments were posted in all six county schools. The Superintendent responded by taking the displays down, then the school board put them back up after the public pressured the board. On advice of legal counsel, they were again later removed.

Last June the board voted 3-2 to put the Commandments up along with other documents in the misguided belief that the documents would put the display on stronger legal footing. Included were a depiction of Lady Justice, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the Bill of Rights, the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, the Declaration of Independence, the Virginia Declaration of Rights, the Mayflower Compact and the Magna Carta.

At the hearing, Urbanski commented on how he viewed the board’s vote: “It’s clear to me that when the school board voted, there was one thing on their mind. And that was God.”

Urbanski suggested compromising by omitting the first four commandments, which have explicitly religious references. He asked both sides if the commandments could be edited and reportedly said, “If indeed this issue is not about God, why wouldn’t it make sense for Giles County to say, ‘Let’s go back and just post the bottom six?’ ”

FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor said she doesn’t buy the suggested compromise and referred to the Supreme Court’s McCreary ruling on the commandments:

“They proclaim the existence of a monotheistic god (no other gods). They regulate details of religious obligation (no graven images, no sabbath breaking, no vain oath swearing). And they unmistakably rest even the universally accepted prohibitions (as against murder, theft, and the like) on the sanction of the divinity proclaimed at the beginning of the text.”

Plaintiffs’ briefs highlighted the religious fervor that led to the display and to statements made by board members. In one deposition, board member Joseph Gollehon said he voted for the display because “I am a Christian” and felt that the commandments “was a great thing if you can live by it.”

Liberty Counsel, associated with Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, represents the board and helped craft the current display. In briefs, Liberty Counsel argued that the board opened up a forum for private displays and that the school has a secular purpose for the commandments because they’re integrated into the history curriculum.

ACLU Attorney Rebecca Glenberg noted at the May 7 hearing that there are no cases that have allowed the commandments in a public school. Walt Hopkins, a professor who studies First Amendment law at Virginia Tech, observed the argument and told the Roanoke Times, “It was not a good day for Giles County.”

Mediation with Magistrate Judge Robert Ballou is expected to occur sometime in the next few weeks.

Freedom From Religion Foundation