Michigan lawmakers consider Ten Commandments, character legislation

Wednesday, March 29, 2000

Sen. Dale L. Sh...
Sen. Dale L. Shugars

Two bills before Michigan lawmakers have sparked accusations by some civil libertarians that the state is moving dangerously close to advancing Christian dogma in the public schools.

Republican state Sen. Dale L. Shugars and seven other senators are urging the passage of bill that would allow school districts to display the Ten Commandments in their classrooms. Senate Bill 1167, which is pending in the Senate Committee on Appropriations, says all state public school districts may post the religious codes on their property.

Shugars said “violence in schools” had renewed parents’ and educators’ interest in featuring the Ten Commandments in public schools.

“While I agree no state or government should, as a matter of policy, advocate a particular religion, recent events have demonstrated the need to allow for some moral guidance within our public school system,” Shugars said in a statement issued in mid-March. “With this in mind, I think it is time we reconsider a Supreme Court decision of 20 years ago and allow public school officials the opportunity to post the Ten Commandments in school buildings.”

The Supreme Court decision Shugars referred to was handed down in 1980 in Stone v. Graham. In Stone, the high court invalidated a Kentucky law that required the Ten Commandments to be posted in all public school classrooms. The high court found that such a law subverted the separation of church and state.

“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. “However desirable this might be as a matter of private devotion, it is not a permissible state objective under the Establishment Clause.”

Shugars, however, argues that his bill differs from the Kentucky law and poses no danger to the First Amendment.

“I’m not pushing for a ‘state objective’ of placing the Ten Commandments in public schools, which the Supreme Court has ruled against,” Shugars said. “Instead, I’m offering local communities the chance to choose for themselves whether the Ten Commandments should be posted. It is a small gesture that can reap great rewards for our schools, communities and children.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan has warned of legal action if the bill becomes law.

“We could challenge if a school or courtroom tried to post the Ten Commandments,” said Wendy Wagenheim, legislative director for the ACLU of Michigan. “What Shugars is going to end up doing is forcing state money to be spent in the courtroom instead of the classroom; the Legislature may deem this bill appropriate and permissible, but our Constitution would not.”

Ten Commandments bills have been introduced in several state legislatures this year. Indiana’s and South Dakota’s governors signed similar bills earlier this month.

Also pending in the Michigan House is a bill that would require public schools to use a character-values course, called Character First!, or its equivalent. The Character First course is based on the work of a Christian minister and founder of the Institute in Basic Life Principles, Bill Gothard, who started developing the character courses in 1964. According to the group’s Web site, his courses are offered in seminars nationwide.

The courses focus on seven principles that are “taught and illustrated throughout the Scripture,” the Web site states. A few of the principles are: Ownership, which is defined as “realizing that everything I have has been entrusted to me by God and wisely using my resources for His purposes; and Freedom, which means, “exercising my conscience to discern between good and evil and overcoming the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and pride of life.”

Michigan House Bill 5352, which is pending in the House Committee on Education, states that all school boards “shall ensure that the school district’s or public school academy’s curriculum for grades K to 12 includes a program in character development” that is the “same as or similar to the Character Counts program or the Character First” program.

Wagenheim said the ACLU “would clearly oppose” the bill.

“Parents should have the expectation that when they send their children to school that they won’t be inculcated with someone else’s religious beliefs,” she said. “The Michigan Legislature should not be pushing a private institution’s — especially a private religious one — religious instruction like this, which is a violation of the principle of separation of church and state.”