Ohio resident wants Ten Commandments removed from school property

Friday, February 12, 1999

An Ohio resident has filed a federal lawsuit against a school district for permitting religious symbols to be placed outside four high schools.

This week, Berry Baker, represented by the state affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union, sued the Adams County/Ohio Valley School Board. The suit says the board violated church-state separation in 1997 when it said all four of its high schools could display the Ten Commandments on stone monuments.

“The tablets are placed at each Adams County high school within 20-30 feet of the main entrance doors such that they cannot help but be seen or noticed by each student as he or she enters or leaves the school,” wrote William Jacobs, a cooperating attorney for the Ohio ACLU, in the complaint. “Thus, every student or visitor to and traveler to each school receives the clear message that that school, the District, and the School Board endorse the religious beliefs, values and rules embodied in the Protestant version of the Ten Commandments.”

There are a number of different versions of the Ten Commandments. Jewish, Catholic-Lutheran and Protestant versions include the same commandments, but are numbered differently.

Jacobs continued that “Baker objects to the use of public school property on which to erect a permanent religious symbol,” because it “constitutes a serious insult to his religious and spiritual sensibilities and otherwise directly injures him in that it requires him to feel alienated from the county in which he resides and from its government.”

The Ohio ACLU asks the federal court to declare the monuments unconstitutional and to order their “immediate removal.”

Some in the small southwestern Ohio county, however, argue that the monuments were not erected to show religious favoritism, but simply to provide a good moral code for all. National conservative religious groups, such as the Rev. Robert Schenck's Ten Commandments Project, espouse such an argument. Schenck, founder of the National Clergy Council, created the project to urge federal, state and local governments to post the Thou Shalt and Thou Shalt Nots in public schools and buildings.

According to Schenck, public display of the religious codes will help repair what he sees as America's lack of morals.

“The problems we face in America are moral problems, which cannot be solved legislatively or judicially,” Schenck told ABC News last year. “We need a moral code to address them. There is no better educational and moral code than the Ten Commandments.”

Raymond Vasvari, the Ohio ACLU legal director, said that it was specious to suggest the Ten Commandments are mere platitudes applicable to all and that government has the right to place them on public property.

“It is both disingenuous and insulting to true believers to suggest the commandments are just nice moral precepts that were handed down from an authority like Dear Abby,” Vasvari said. “The commandments are sacred principles God gave to Moses on Mount Sinai.”

Vasvari said that the establishment clause of the First Amendment required that government not become excessively entangled with religion. “The presence of the commandments on public school property raises problems, in that they create a strong appearance that the county endorses religion.”

In 1980, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Stone v. Graham that copies of the Ten Commandments could not legally be placed in Kentucky public school classrooms.

The high court stated that “the Ten Commandments are undeniably a sacred text in the Jewish and Christian faiths,” and that posting them on the classroom walls served no “educational function.” Instead the high court noted that 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. However desirable this might be as a matter of private devotion, it is not a permissible state objective under the Establishment Clause.”