Ohio lawmakers praise school district for supporting Ten Commandments

Tuesday, May 25, 1999

Ohio legislators have overwhelmingly shown support for a school district enmeshed in a legal battle to keep monuments of the Ten Commandments on public school grounds.

Late last week the Ohio House of Representatives voted 81-15 to pass a resolution lauding the Adams County School District for its fight to keep the religious codes in front of four of its high schools. Earlier this year the state affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit against the school district calling for the removal of the religious codes.

In its lawsuit, the Ohio ACLU argues that placing the Ten Commandments 20-30 feet from the main entrances of the high schools amounts to state endorsement of Christianity and therefore violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment. “Thus, every student or visitor to and traveler to each school receives the clear message that the school, the District, and the School Board endorse the religious beliefs, values and rules embodied” in the Ten Commandments, the ACLU argued in its complaint.

The resolution in support of Adams County was introduced by state Rep. Dennis Stapleton in early March. According to the resolution, the General Assembly supports and sympathizes with the school officials “as they oppose a lawsuit that seeks to force the removal of the tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments from the entrance of their schools.”

The House's resolution includes several statements that contradict federal court precedent regarding the placement of religious symbols on public school property. Several paragraphs of the resolution maintain that public school districts have a First Amendment right to erect the Ten Commandments on school grounds.

“The monuments are placed outside the school buildings where any person entering may voluntarily read the inscriptions thereon and are not placed in the classrooms of those buildings; and the Ten Commandments placed on those monuments provide guidance for ethical living for persons of all religions; and placing the Ten Commandments at the entrance of school buildings represents the freedom of American citizens to express their beliefs; and those Commandments are a guiding force in the lives of members of the communities of the Adams County/Ohio Valley School District and represent principles which the community members wish to include in the daily lives of their children,” the resolution states.

In 1980, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Stone v. Graham that public schools were no place for the Ten Commandments. In striking down a Kentucky law that required the posting of the religious codes in public school classrooms, the high court said the Ten Commandments “are undeniably a sacred text” that “do not confine themselves to arguably secular matters, such as honoring one's parents, killing or murder.”

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

After passage of the resolution, however, Stapleton insisted that no constitutional issues were raised by the Ten Commandments situation.

“The display of the Ten Commandments is not an endorsement of religion,” Stapleton said in a prepared statement issued after the vote. “What this issue is about is the right of a local community to instill values in its children.”

Raymond Vasvari, the Ohio ACLU legal director, called the House action “disappointing, if not surprising.”

“Of course the sentiment of the House, however well-intentioned, is neither dispositive nor germane to the constitutional question at issue,” Vasvari said. “The question of whether the placement and maintenance of the Ten Commandments on public school grounds violates the establishment clause will determined by a U.S. district judge, not by the Ohio House of Representatives resolution.”

Vasvari also decried the legislators for blatant political pandering.

“In adopting a resolution that is clearly aimed at their respective constituents, the legislators appear to be blissfully unaware of the Constitution and the decision in Stone v. Graham,” Vasvari said. “A resolution such as this underscores the wisdom of the framers in creating a judicial branch which serves as the watchdog of our rights against political encroachment.”

The House resolution — No. 17 — will now be considered by the state Senate.