South Carolina attorney general issues pro-Ten Commandments statement

Wednesday, August 12, 1998

The attorney general of South Carolina, responding to a request from a state lawmaker, yesterday issued an opinion on the legality of displaying the Ten Commandments in the state's public schools.

State Attorney General Charlie Condon concluded in his 10-page opinion that under certain circumstances the Ten Commandments could constitutionally be posted in public classrooms. Condon's opinion is not binding on state officials.

“A public school is not a place of religion, but religion has a constitutional place in the public schools,” Condon wrote in an introduction to the his opinion.

“Contrary to popular belief, placement of the Ten Commandments in the public schools is not necessarily illegal and there are a number of contexts in which placement of the Ten Commandments on school property could be legal,” Condon wrote.

For more than a year Henry Jordan, a member of the State Board of Education, has called on the board to pass a proposal encouraging all public schools to post the religious codes. Jordan has not been able to garner enough board members to pass the resolution. Jordan's brother, state Rep. Brad Jordan, sent a letter to Condon asking whether public schools could post the Ten Commandments.

According to Condon teachers could use the religious codes for a secular purpose, “such as teaching of law, culture or history.” Condon also said that students can display the commandments as an “exercise of their right of free speech, provided the state does not endorse the display.”

Steve Benen, a spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a Washington, D.C.-based civil rights group that has been monitoring the state board's actions, called Condon's opinion inaccurate and irresponsible.

“He intentionally overlooked the U.S. Supreme Court ruling of Stone v. Graham, because the 1980 decision runs completely contrary to his political agenda,” Benen said. “As the attorney general he has a responsibility to interpret the law as it exists. It is highly irresponsible to tell the state school board to ignore a Supreme Court ruling.”

The high court in Graham invalidated a Kentucky law that required the posting of the Ten Commandments in all classrooms. In the short unanimous opinion, the court found that Kentucky lawmakers had no secular purpose for requiring the posting of the religious codes in public classrooms.

“The pre-eminent purpose for posting the Ten Commandments on schoolroom walls is plainly religious in nature,” the court stated. “The Ten Commandments are undeniably a sacred text in the Jewish and Christian faiths, and no legislative recitation of a supposed secular purpose can blind us to that fact.

Furthermore, the court noted in Graham that the case did not involve a situation in which the “Ten Commandments are integrated into the school curriculum, where the Bible may constitutionally be used in an appropriate study of history, civilization, ethics, comparative religion, or the like.”

The court continued: “Posting of religious texts on the wall serves no such educational function. 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.”

Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United, sent a letter yesterday to the South Carolina State Board of Education urging its members to ignore Condon's opinion.

“Simply stated, any public school that follows Mr. Condon's advice is risking a lawsuit,” Lynn said. “The tax dollars of your state's residents should be spent improving public education, not squandered in a vain attempt to defend unconstitutional schemes.”

Alex Stanton, head of the state board, told Columbia, S.C.'s The State that Condon's opinion is not likely to change the board's position on the Ten Commandments.