More public school districts vow to post Ten Commandments

Tuesday, November 16, 1999

(Editor's note: Later in the day that this story was posted, the ACLU of Southern California filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking an injunction against the Val Verde Unified School District's plan to post copies of the Ten Commandments on school grounds.)

In the apparently never-ending constitutional battle over the proper public setting for the Ten Commandments, school districts in California and Illinois have said they will soon post the religious codes on school grounds.

This summer the U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly added a clause to a juvenile-justice bill declaring that the states have the authority to post the Ten Commandments in all public buildings, including public schools. Despite contravening a 1980 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Stone v. Graham, the House's statement on the religious codes seems to be taking hold in school districts throughout the country.

In Stone, the high court ruled that the Ten Commandments are undeniably a sacred text that cannot constitutionally be posted on school grounds.

The Val Verde Unified School District in California and the Harrisburg School District in Illinois, however, have decided to ignore federal court interpretation of the First Amendment and place the Ten Commandments on school grounds throughout their districts.

Both school districts' actions have drawn attention from civil rights groups.

Last week the Val Verde Unified School Board voted 3-1, with one member abstaining, to place copies of the Ten Commandments in offices of its 12 schools. School board member Jan Dotson said she was not concerned about the 1980 Supreme Court ruling, the Los Angeles Times reported.

“There comes a point in your life when you need to know what you stand for,” Dotson told the Times. “I don't go out of my way to break the law, but you have to take a stand.”

Bob Givens, the school board president, also said he would not “recognize the Supreme Court's laws,” and that only the views of the majority were important.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California responded to the board's action with a threat of litigation.

“Val Verde's action serves no educational purpose,” Michael Small, the ACLU of Southern California's chief counsel, said in a prepared statement. “It is about religious indoctrination, pure and simple. Make no mistake about it — the school board will be sued, and it will lose. But the real losers here are the students in Val Verde. The taxpayer funds that the school board will waste in lawsuits could be used for textbooks, computers, and other instructional materials.”

On Nov. 5, the ACLU of Illinois sent a letter to the Harrisburg School Board saying its vote, in late October, to post the Ten Commandments in the district's four schools could prompt a lawsuit. To be posted beside the Ten Commandments are copies of the Bill of Rights and the Magna Carta.

Ed Yohnka, director of communications for the ACLU's Chicago office, said that Harrisburg school officials had also been provided with copies of the Stone decision and might re-examine the issue during a school board meeting this evening.

“We believe the board's vote stands in direct contrast to decisions by the Supreme Court that make clear that posting the Ten Commandments in public schools is in fact an establishment of religion and violates the First Amendment,” Yohnka said.

However, Charles Haynes, the First Amendment Center's senior scholar, says the Harrisburg action is not as clear-cut as the ACLU of Illinois suggests.

“If there is display with a variety of historical documents that are the source of our legal system and important to our history, that's probably permissible,” Haynes told Carbondale's Southern Illinoisan.

Haynes added that it was important that the Harrisburg school board was voting for the Ten Commandments posting for educational reasons, not sectarian.

In Stone, the high court noted that any government-mandated use of prayer or Bible passages in the public schools must be for secular reasons, such as education, and not to promote or endorse the religious message.