Lawmakers in three states call for more religion in public places

Friday, March 3, 2000

The call by religious groups and conservative politicians to display copies of the Ten Commandments in government buildings, most notably schools, continues to ring loudly in state legislatures and local governing bodies.

Legislators in Iowa and Mississippi have joined several other states in urging passage of Ten Commandments bills, and a county commission in North Carolina has already posted the religious codes in public buildings and is facing a possible lawsuit.

Iowa state senators on March 1 urged passage of a proposal that would require the religious codes to be prominently displayed in the state Senate chamber and in all public school classrooms, as well as other government structures.

The proposal, sponsored by 14 Senate Republicans and supported by the Senate majority leader, states: “The Ten Commandments contain fundamental legal principles that provide a basis for the system of law, justice, and social order in Iowa and the United States and the Iowa Senate finds that the success of this nation and this state will rest on citizens’ ability to govern themselves according to the Ten Commandments.”

The Senate bill, therefore, concludes that copies of the religious codes “shall be prominently displayed in the Iowa Senate chamber; and that the Iowa Senate encourages all other Iowa state governmental bodies and political subdivisions to also prominently display the Ten Commandments.”

Iowa’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union censured the lawmakers’ bill as an attempt to establish a state religion.

“The Iowa Senate chamber belongs to all the people of Iowa, not just the senators who use it,” said Ben Stone, executive director of the Iowa Civil Liberties Union. “If some senators want to promote religious doctrines, let them form a club and do it as private citizens.”

Calls to several of the Republican sponsors regarding the ACLU’s criticism of the bill were not returned.

State Sen. Stewart Iverson, however, told The Des Moines Register that he saw “no harm” in having the Ten Commandments displayed in the chamber and that their presence would instill civility among the lawmakers.

Like Iowa, the Mississippi Legislature has joined an expanding list of state assemblies considering Ten Commandments bills.

Mississippi state Rep. Wanda T. Jennings is calling on her colleagues to approve a bill that, in part, claims, “The organic laws of the United States and the constitutions of every state, using various expressions, recognize God as the source of the blessings of liberty.” Jennings’ bill does not note that the word “God” does not appear in the U.S. Constitution.

The Republican representative’s bill thus concludes that the state’s school districts “may authorize the display of the Ten Commandments in classrooms and in other public areas of school buildings and facilities.” If approved by both chambers and signed into law by the governor, school districts could start posting the religious codes on July 1.

In an eastern North Carolina county, a board of commissioners last week rejected a request by a resident for placement of some Buddhist precepts alongside copies of the Ten Commandments that have been posted in three county courtrooms and the commissioners’ meeting room.

Deborah Ross, executive director of the ACLU of North Carolina, said her group was preparing a legal challenge to the actions taken by the Wilkes County Board of Commissioners.

“What they have done is clearly unconstitutional and we have potential plaintiffs in Wilkes County,” Ross said. “The Supreme Court has already decided these types of actions are improper; so the constitutionality of the situation is beyond dispute. This is the same song and dance that comes up every time elections roll around – it is a political strategy that is popular, but that is also unconstitutional.”

The Supreme Court ruled in Stone v. Graham in 1980 that the Ten Commandments are undeniably religious in nature and could not constitutionally be placed in Kentucky public classrooms.

Tony Triplette, attorney for the Wilkes County Commission, did not return calls regarding the board’s support of the Ten Commandments.