Would posting the Ten Commandments in public schools help prevent another Columbine?
Supporters believe that posting the Ten Commandments in public schools could curb violence in the schools.
The American Civil Liberties Union, however, argues that the biblical document is a religious symbol that doesn’t belong in public schools and is suing to stop them from being posted on school property.
Do the Ten Commandments belong in public schools? Would their posting make schools safer? Or would it weaken the constitutional separation of church and state?
Ten Commandments Movement Sparks Heated Debate
“Thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not murder, thou shalt have no other gods before me.” Those are some of the words that the Rev. Rob Schenck would like to see in every classroom in America.
“Thou shalt not bring down the wall between church and state” is closer to what the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) would prefer.
The posting of the Bible’s Ten Commandments in America’s public schools has become the latest point of contention between conservative Christians and civil rights advocates, with the debate being heard in Congress, state legislatures and the courts.
Supporters say the Ten Commandments can offer guidance and discipline during increasingly violent times. Opponents argue that posting them would violate the constitutional separation of church and state. And, typical of these kinds of debates, the two sides find little common ground.
“Young people are dying,” said Schenck, an evangelical minister based in Washington who is spearheading a movement to inject religion into government. “We have to look to our past to see what works. Certainly, there are some who are beyond the help of posting the Ten Commandments in the schools. But we have to start somewhere. We have to have a common vocabulary so that we may have a moral education in our schools.”
“The Ten Commandments is a religious document of one faith — Christianity,” countered Michael Fleming, spokesman for the ACLU of Southern California. “And it is inappropriate to post it in a public school room, where children of all faith — or no faith at all — are seeking to learn.”
‘Standards to live by’
Religious and school officials in states including California, Kentucky and Pennsylvania have joined Schenck’s crusade, which goes far beyond posting the Ten Commandments in schools.
“We will not rest until God’s [Ten] Commandments are on display in every congressional, Senate, local government and, yes, even White House office,” declares Schenck’s Web site, The Beltway Ambassador. His stated mission is “to inject Christianity into the political debate.”
While not all supporters of the school initiative go as far as Schenck, in some cases whole communities have mobilized in similar efforts. Adams County, Ohio, for instance, has put together private resources to pay for posters, book covers and stone tablets that are being posted all over the schools — with the blessing of their boards.
“Our [school] board and our community felt they were important standards to live by, and not necessarily a religious issue,” Adams County Schools Superintendent Roy Hill said.
Interpreting the First Amendment
At issue for both sides is the First Amendment, which begins, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Supporters of posting the Ten Commandments say they are not violating anyone’s civil rights because the Ten Commandments are not specific to one religion, and extend even beyond the related monotheistic religions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam.
“I have found moral standards identical to the Ten Commandments in every religion, even Buddhism and Satanism,” said the Rev. Doug Ferguson of Adams County. “This is not just one religion.”
Threats of lawsuits
For the ACLU, which is challenging school districts in at least a half-dozen states, the Ten Commandments cannot be separated from their religious context so easily.
“They do not just happen to appear in the Bible,” Fleming said.
The ACLU has succeeded in several states in getting the courts to force the removal of the Ten Commandments from public buildings such as courtrooms and government offices. In other cases, as in Val Verde, Calif., and Logan County, W.Va., the ACLU’s threat of legal action led schools to rescind their decisions to post the Ten Commandments.
The ACLU has lawsuits pending against schools in Kentucky and Ohio. Civil libertarians feel that having the Ten Commandments posted on school property amounts to an endorsement of a particular religion.
“The courts have agreed with us that this is illegal,” said Fleming. “We hope that, as in Val Verde, schools across the country will see they cannot win.”
Rejected by Supreme Court
The nation’s highest court ruled in 1980 that the Ten Commandments could not be posted in schools. The Supreme Court ruled in Stone vs. Graham that Kentucky could not require the Ten Commandments be posted in every classroom of its public schools, even though the posters were paid for with private funds and officials claimed they were presented with a “secular” purpose.
“The Supreme Court has proven that it was wrong in the past … as in the slavery rulings of the 19th century or Roe vs. Wade. Ultimately, we are confident that they will change their minds on [this] as well,” Schenck said.
The movement was buoyed last year when the House of Representatives passed a measure — with a two-thirds margin — that would allow schools to post the Ten Commandments. The proposal did not pass in the Senate, but supporters say they will be lobbying to bring it up again this year.
The movement gained a higher profile after several school shootings, the bloodiest occurring last year at Columbine High School in Colorado. Ferguson said his school district was ahead of the trend — the stone tablets bearing the Ten Commandments were posted in front of four schools in Adams County in 1997 after parents raised the money and received the blessing of the board.
Teaching or preaching?
“What we saw was a lot of moral confusion in the schools, and we thought this was the way to go,” said Ferguson. “What if those students at Columbine had walked past a sign every morning that said ‘Thou shalt not murder?’”
The ACLU says it applauds the teaching of values in the classroom but draws the line at promoting religion.
“Schools can and should be teaching … values, such as not killing each other and not stealing,” said Jeff Vessels, executive director of the Kentucky ACLU.
“That’s different from endorsing a particular religion. This idea that posting one particular doctrine is going to cure all of our problems, especially related to violence, is very simplistic.”