FFRF sues Virginia school over Ten Commandments

The Freedom From Religion Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia filed a federal lawsuit Sept. 13 against the School Board of Giles County, Va., for unconstitutionally endorsing religion by displaying the Ten Commandments.

The suit was filed in U.S. District Court in Roanoke on behalf of a student at Narrows High School, Narrows, Va., and the student’s parent. The plaintiffs filed a motion for a protective order to keep their identities confidential due to the potential for retaliation. Giles County is contesting that request. (See sidebar, back page.)

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

The community reacted with acrimony. A large number of students at Giles High School in Pearisburg walked out of classes in protest March 7, demanding that the Ten Command-ments be placed again in their school. About 100 people wore Ten Commandments T-shirts and carried decalogue posters at a May 19 board meeting. Then the board entertained a motion to return the Ten Commandments as part of a larger display.

FFRF and ACLU of Virginia sent a joint letter of objection to the district against that proposal. FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott and ACLU of Virginia Legal Director Rebecca Glenberg wrote in the organizations’ joint letter:

“The Giles County School Board cannot hide the religious purpose behind this display simply by arranging other documents around the Ten Commandments.” The letter pointed out that the U.S. Supreme Court and the Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals struck down a similar display because the history of the controversy evinced the government’s religious purpose. The letter noted that courts afford the highest Establishment Clause protections to impressionable schoolchildren.

Nevertheless, in June the board voted 3-2 to put the Commandments up again, along with other documents in the misguided belief that the documents would put the display on strong-er legal footing. The other elements included 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.

Taking the suit on behalf of the school is the Liberty Counsel. The Kentucky counties of Pulaski and McCreary as of May owed the ACLU of Kentucky a total of $456,881, nearly all of it for attorneys’ fees, after they lost their lengthy fight, taken by the Liberty Counsel, to post copies of Ten Commandments in their courthouses.

Judge-Executive Doug Stephens told the Lexington Herald-Leader that he believed that Liberty Counsel, the Christian legal group that represented the counties, might help with fundraising to pay the judgment. Liberty Counsel founder Mathew Staver said his organization has never raised money for that purpose.

The bible display at Narrows High School is in a main hallway where the student plaintiff encounters it daily. The display “promotes a particular faith to which Doe 1 does not subscribe,” the suit charges. “Doe 1 understands the current display to be merely a continuation of the board’s longstanding policy, practice, and custom of promoting the Ten Commandments in the school.”

Given the public outcry when the Commandments were removed and the clamor for their reinstallation, “any alleged secular purpose for the current displays are, and will be perceived as, a sham,” the plaintiffs contend.

A former Giles High School student, Sarah McNair, began protesting the Ten Commandments displays in 2004 in written letters to many officials. She contacted FFRF after its letter of complaint went out, and FFRF awarded her its Thomas Jefferson Student Activist Award. Sarah has noted in media interviews the school’s hostile climate and bullying of nonbelievers.

The Supreme Court ruled in Stone v. Graham (1980) that public schools may not post the Ten Commandments:

“The pre-eminent purpose for posting the Ten Commandments on schoolroom walls is plainly religious in nature. The Ten Commandments are undeniably a sacred text in the Jewish and Christian faiths, and no legislative recitation of a supposed secular purpose can blind us to that fact. The Commandments do not confine themselves to arguably secular matters, such as honoring one’s parents, killing or murder, adultery, stealing, false witness, and covetousness. See Exodus 20: 12-17; Deuteronomy 5: 16-21. Rather, the first part of the Commandments concerns the religious duties of believers: worshipping the Lord God alone, avoiding idolatry, not using the Lord’s name in vain, and observing the Sabbath Day. See Exodus 20: 1-11; Deuteronomy 5: 6-15.”

“One has only to read the First Commandment, ‘Thou shalt have no other god before me,’ to realize why a public school may not post such a demand,” said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “A school board has no business deciding whether a student embraces one god, 10 gods or no god at all. The First Commandment is the antithesis of the First Amendment.”

The plaintiffs seek a declaration that the policy and postings are unconstitutional, a permanent injunction prohibiting Giles County Public Schools from displaying the Commandments, nominal damages and attorneys’ fees and costs.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys are FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott and Rebecca Glenberg, Thomas Okuda Fitzpatrick of the ACLU of Virginia and Frank Feibelman, ACLU of Virginia cooperating attorney.

The case, filed in the U.S. District Court, Western District of Virginia, is Doe v. School Board of Giles County, 7:11-cv-00435.

Freedom From Religion Foundation