Representatives agree to post Ten Commandments in congressional offices

Tuesday, October 26, 1999

Citing recent violent acts at public high schools, a socially conservative activist group has prompted 41 members of Congress to agree to post copies of the Ten Commandments in their offices. The group also is urging local officials across the nation to display the religious codes in public schools and government buildings.

Last week at the behest of the Family Research Council, a Washington, D.C.-based group founded by Republican presidential candidate Gary Bauer, 41 members of Congress vowed to post framed copies of the Ten Commandments in their offices and to encourage public display of the codes nationwide.

At a news conference on Oct. 21 on Capitol Hill, the 41 members gathered to accept their copies of the Ten Commandments, provided by Bauer's group, and to laud efforts by the FRC to encourage public officials nationwide to post the religious codes. Janet Parshall, FRC spokeswoman, said the representatives' posting of the codes would send a message “that the Ten Commandments are an integral part of public life and should be posted to promote a virtuous and civil society.”

Parshall said her group was responding to a “wake of school shootings” by mounting the “Hang Ten” campaign to remind “our nation that the Ten Commandments belong in the public square.” The FRC's campaign has included distribution of 500,000 textbook covers featuring the Ten Commandments to public school students nationwide.

Parshall also noted that seven counties in Kentucky have posted the religious codes in schools or courthouses or are making efforts to do so. Moreover, Kentucky state Rep. Bo Ausmus introduced a bill in the Legislature in early October to permit school districts to vote on whether to post the Ten Commandments in classrooms and on whether to create a class on the “historical impact of the Ten Commandments as it relates to moral, ethical, legal, and societal rules.” The American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky has sent letters to public officials warning of possible legal action if the religious codes are not removed from public places.

Jeff Vessels, the ACLU of Kentucky's executive director, told a state task force considering the Ausmus' bill, that the Ten Commandments' religious precepts are not legally permissible in certain public places.

The purpose of the “bill seems clear: to teach public school children specific religious tenets,” Vessels said. “Such teaching has been found by the courts to be contrary to the federal and state laws upon which this nation and this state were founded.”

Vessels also reminded the task force that in 1980 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Stone v. Graham that a Kentucky law requiring the posting of the Ten Commandments in all public school classrooms violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment. The high court said the Ten Commandments could only be described as a sacred text and that the only purpose of posting them in the public school classrooms would be to induce students to read, meditate upon or obey them.

Five Democrats and 36 Republicans joined Parshall and other FRC officials at the news conference. The FRC, according to its Web site, “exists to reaffirm and promote nationally, and particularly in Washington, DC, the traditional family unit and the Judeo-Christian value system upon which it is built.”

The FRC's Ten Commandments campaign quickly drew criticism from civil rights groups.

Carol Shields, president of the left-leaning People for the American Way, said her group would send the 41 lawmakers copies of the First Amendment as “a reminder that the Founders did not intend for our government to endorse any particular religion.”

Steve Benen, a spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, asked Parshall at the news conference which version of the Ten Commandents was given to the representatives and whether she had a copy posted in her office. She refused to answer either question.

Kristin Hansen, an FRC spokeswoman, said that the representatives were given the King James version of the Ten Commandments, but that they were not numbered. Hansen added that the group's “Hang Ten” campaign encourages government officials to post any version of the religious codes.

Rob Boston, assistant communications director for Americans United, described the FRC's campaign as a “cheap political stunt.”

“Our group is concerned about a politically backed campaign to encourage the posting of the Ten Commandments in public schools and government buildings,” Boston said. “We have litigated a number of cases regarding government sponsorship of the Ten Commandments and have won them all. My advice to any government official who 'Hangs Ten' is to look out because there is a big wave headed their way and its called the First Amendment.”

Boston added that he believed the FRC's use of the Ten Commandments bordered on “blasphemy.”

To the FRC “the Ten Commandments is little more than a lucky rabbit's foot that if held onto long enough all problems will vanish,” Boston said. “The Ten Commandments is not some sort of magical talisman or juju beads.”