Georgia legislators may tell schools to post Ten Commandments — or else

Tuesday, February 1, 2000

Rep. Judy Poag...
Rep. Judy Poag

A Georgia state representative is urging passage of a bill that not only requires all public schools to post the Ten Commandments in every classroom but also threatens to cut state funding to any district that fails to comply.

The bill, introduced in the Georgia House by Democratic state Rep. Judy Poag goes a step further than similar bills in Kentucky, Mississippi, Indiana and other states that would allow the posting of the religious codes in classrooms. Poag's bill, if passed into law, would “require local school systems to ensure that the Ten Commandments is displayed in every classroom within the school district, in order to receive state funds” under an education law. House Bill 1207 was introduced last week and is pending in the House Committee on Education.

In 1980, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated, on religious-liberty grounds, a Kentucky law that required posting of the Ten Commandments in each public classroom in the state. That law, however, did not condition state funds on school districts' posting of the religious codes. Nonetheless, the high court said the Kentucky law violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment because the state's sole purpose for passing the law was to encourage Christian studies in the public schools.

The high court said the posting of religious texts on school walls served no educational purpose. “If the posted copies of the Ten Commandments are to have any effect at all, it will be to induce the schoolchildren to read, meditate upon, perhaps to venerate and obey, the Commandments,” the court wrote in Stone v. Graham. “However desirable this might be as a matter of private education, it is not a permissible state objective under the Establishment Clause.”

Gerry Weber, legal director for the Georgia American Civil Liberties Union, said that Poag's bill was blatantly unconstitutional.

“It is an invitation to litigation if it passes,” Weber said. “The bill would essentially condition funding for every school district upon their endorsement of Judeo-Christian commandments.”

Weber adds that his group is lobbying the General Assembly and says that he “anticipates that cooler heads” will prevail to ensure that Poag's bill won't make it out of the House.

Also last week, Poag introduced House Bill 1209 that would require state school boards to adopt policies allowing “student-initiated spoken prayer during the school day.” Poag's bill also states that “school personnel” would be barred from “participating in or actively supervising such prayer.”

In the 1960s, the U.S. Supreme Court twice invalidated state laws allowing prayer to be led by school officials. The high court held that school officials could not legally organize prayer sessions in public schools, but that students could constitutionally pray on their own.

State laws that simply authorize voluntary student prayer are, however, not necessarily constitutional. In 1985, the high court in Wallace v. Jaffree struck down an Alabama law that authorized a one-minute silent period “for meditation or voluntary prayer.” The court concluded that such laws must pass a three-part constitutional test: The law must have a secular purpose; it must not have the primary effect of aiding religion; and it must not excessively entangle church and state. In Wallace, the court found that the Alabama Legislature passed the law only to ensure that students prayed each morning.

Five Georgia lawmakers, led by Republican state Rep. Ron Stephens, have also introduced two resolutions relating to religion and the public schools. The first calls on Congress to pass a constitutional amendment “to authorize voluntary group prayer in the nation's public school classrooms.” The second resolution urges Bible study in the state's public schools.

The resolution urging a constitutional amendment says that such an action is needed because “for more than 30 years group prayer as part of the daily classroom routine in public schools has been prohibited as an unconstitutional government establishment of religion; and during the last three decades, the rate of crime, violence, and drug abuse among our children has become a national tragedy, and it has become clear that many of our children are growing up without a sense of traditional values.”

Weber said the resolution calling for a constitutional amendment was an “embarrassment to the state.”

“It troubles me when state legislators are brash enough to question the wisdom of Jefferson and the Founding Fathers,” Weber said. “These prayer-in-school resolutions are political sound bites for conservative politicians that have no basis in reality. Students have every right to pray in school and that is a right we would defend just as strongly as we would defend the right of students not to be subject to prayers led by teachers.”