Ten Commandments Proposal for Giles County Schools is Unconstitutional

On June 1, the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the ACLU of Virginia sent a letter to the Giles County School Board in opposition to proposed school displays that would include the Ten Commandments. The School Board will vote on June 7 on whether it will return the Ten Commandments to the walls of county schools — this time alongside other historical documents, such as the Magna Carta and the National Anthem, in an attempt to hide the religious purpose of the display.

In December, FFRF complained about displays in each school that contained framed copies of the Ten Commandments next to the U.S. Constitution. Following the complaint, the superintendent removed the Ten Commandments. However, they were subsequently put back in the schools after local church members attended a January meeting to demand their return. In response to the threat of a joint lawsuit by FFRF and the ACLU of Virginia on behalf of local families, the School Board convened a special meeting in February at which it again decided to remove the Ten Commandments. The community reacted with acrimony, and students at Giles High School walked out of classes in protest on March 7. (Video of walkout available here.) At the most recent School Board meeting on May 19, approximately 100 people wore Ten Commandments T-shirts and carried Ten Commandments posters in support of the current display 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 display evinced the government’s religious purpose. The letter also said that courts afford the highest Establishment Clause protections to impressionable schoolchildren. If the display is posted in public schools, the ACLU of Virginia and the Freedom From Religion Foundation remain prepared to file suit against the School Board on behalf of aggrieved families.

See FFRF’s earlier Action Alert here.

A former Giles County High School student, Sarah McNair, began protesting the Ten Commandments displays in 2004. Earlier this year, FFRF awarded her its Thomas Jefferson Youth Activist Award.

Watch a news report from WSLS 10 News, the local NBC affiliate. Ten Commandments supporters propose historical display in Giles Co. schools. Ashley Roberts, May 19, 2011.

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, 3 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. It is none of the business of a school board whether a student embraces one god, ten gods or no god at all! The First Commandment is the antithesis of the First Amendment," said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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