Congressmen wouldn’t go further than posting Ten Commandments in schools

Monday, June 21, 1999

WASHINGTON — Although they voted in favor of a provision that would allow the posting of the Ten Commandments in public schools, several members of Congress say they are not prepared to go further and advocate incorporating the Ten Commandments into classroom studies.

The posting of the Ten Commandments in schools and other public buildings could be ordered by state governments under an amendment by Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., to the juvenile-justice bill debated by the House last week. Although a related bill spelling out a series of gun-control measures ultimately was defeated by the House, the Aderholt amendment was attached to a separate piece of legislation that passed the House and now goes to a conference committee with the Senate.

No such language regarding the Ten Commandments is in the Senate legislation relating to juvenile justice and gun control, so there is no guarantee that the amendment will survive the conference committee that will be working out differences between the two versions of the bill.

Rep. Bob Clemen...
Rep. Bob Clement, D-Tenn.

Rep. Bob Clement, D-Tenn., said on June 18 he thought the posting language had “an uphill” fight for acceptance by the Senate. But Aderholt said he was hopeful that the Senate might embrace the provision since senators have previously passed a “Sense of the Congress” resolution that carried much the same language.

That resolution, which Aderholt sponsored and which passed the House and Senate during the 105th Congress, termed the Ten Commandments the “cornerstone of a fair and just society and public display in public buildings should not be precluded.”

Even if the amendment were accepted by the Senate and it became law, “I'm sure it would be contested in court as to whether it is constitutional,” Clement said. But he and several other lawmakers who voted for the proposal said they were not put off by the prospect of a court fight.

“That's what courts are for,” Rep. Rod Blagojevich, D-Ill., said.

“This is almost a debate with the Supreme Court” more than anything else, said Rep. Asa Hutchinson, R-Ark., when asked the purpose of the amendment.

The Supreme Court ruled in 1980 that a Kentucky law requiring the posting of a copy of the Ten Commandments in every public school classroom was unconstitutional. The court said the required posting would violate the separation of religion and government mandated in the Constitution.

Aderholt, whose amendment was passed on a 248-180 vote, said developing courses based on the Ten Commandments was not what he or the supporters of his amendment had in mind when they spoke up in favor of the postings.

“That is not what this is intended to do,” Aderholt said. “Every one of the supporters of this amendment understands that Congress should not mandate that anyone should bow to one particular religion.” But, he added, “To completely divorce ourselves from the fact that our country was founded on the basis of the Ten Commandments is wrong.”

Aderholt said he did not expect the posting of the commandments to “lead to an overnight change in the moral character of the nation,” nor did he think it would have prevented the sort of massacre that occurred at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. However, he said it was a “step in the right direction” that could provide a “moral compass” to young people who are growing up in difficult times and facing hard choices.

“The Ten Commandments are the basis for probably most of the laws in this country. I believe that we as a culture need to have comfort in the fact that there are some moral absolutes,” he said. “This is a great way to begin.”

Blagojevich, who represents a liberal district in Chicago, said he voted for the amendment because it gave local officials the authority to decide whether or not to post the Ten Commandments. He said he thought it was perfectly proper to display a “valuable message” in public schools and other public buildings, “whether it's the Ten Commandments or a message from the Koran.”

“I agree with all 10 of them,” Blagojevich said. “I think they're right.”

He said the Aderholt amendment would let schools do exactly what Congress does in displaying the motto “In God We Trust” on its walls or what the Mint does in printing the same words on the nation's currency. “I don't see anyone saying we should take 'In God We Trust' from the walls of our building here,” he said.

But Blagojevich draws the line when it comes to teaching the commandments.

“I wouldn't teach them. That would violate separation of church and state,” he said.

Rep. Gene Taylor, D-Miss., agreed.

“We have to be very careful with separation of church and state. I did not see that (the posting of the Ten Commandments) as an endorsement of any one religion,” Taylor said.

Taylor said he considered the Ten Commandments “a great model to go by” and a good example for legislators who write laws.

“They are clear, very understandable, there are no loopholes, and if people lived by them, there wouldn't be a need for any other laws,” he said.

Rep. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., elected to the House in February to fill the seat vacated when former House Speaker Newt Gingrich resigned, said his background as an educator convinced him that posting the Ten Commandments might make a difference.

“The majority of the Ten Commandments are felonies under the laws of the United States,” said Isakson, who was chairman of the State Board of Education in Georgia before his election to Congress. “What does not posting them do? Posting them has the effect that the individual who reads them may consider them. Right's right, and wrong's wrong. The important thing is that I don't think we can lose sight of the fact that what people hear and see … has a great effect on them.”

However, Isakson added, “In the end, how children are raised by their parents will determine how messages will be delivered. There is only so much a government can do or should do, but in the end we are a free society.”

Clement, the Tennessee congressman, said he thought the display of the Ten Commandments might help some to develop a belief in a higher power.

“The Ten Commandments, in my opinion, cross all religious faiths and beliefs,” he said in a telephone interview. “Just posting the Ten Commandments on the side of a building is not going to change hearts and souls, but I do believe that if we can make more people aware of the Ten Commandments — and I contend there are a lot of lost souls out there not familiar with them — that it would be helpful to get people to think and reflect and maybe even to believe in a higher power.”
But even Clement said he would not press for making the Ten Commandments a mandatory course of study.

Rep. Charles Canady, R-Fla., said, “It is an undeniable historical fact that the Ten Commandments serve as the basis of the legal system in the United States and most of the Western World, and to recognize that seems to me to be nothing more than recognizing reality. I don't believe that the schools should be involved in religious instruction. I do believe that students going through school should know about the Ten Commandments.”

Hutchinson, the Arkansas congressman and a member of the House Judiciary Committee, said he hoped that the posting of the commandments “hopefully might ease the chilling effect” on talking about those values in public schools. He said he did not think the Ten Commandments could be taught “in a religious context” but that the values they represent could be incorporated into classroom study.

“Thou Shall Not Kill should be something stressed in classrooms as a value,” Hutchinson said.

In a prepared statement, U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley said: “The House of Representatives voted 248 to 180 to allow states to publicly display in schools the Ten Commandments. I am sure that this vote reflects the deep concerns of many members of Congress about the values of our nation's young people. However, the U.S. Supreme Court in 1980 (in Stone v. Graham) ruled that it is unconstitutional for a state to require posting of the Ten Commandments in public schools.

“There has been a great deal of commentary about the lack of prayer and the lack of values in our nation's public schools,” Riley continued. “While I respect the concerns of many members of Congress, I must disagree with their assertion that our nation's schools are ignoring the religious rights of our students. Any student in an American public school today can pray, bring a Bible to school, say grace at lunch or voluntarily participate in 'see you at the flagpole' gatherings. The religious rights of all students — Christians, non-Christians, and non-believers as well — are very well protected.”