State lawmakers say Ten Commandments belong in public schoolrooms

Thursday, January 13, 2000

Kentucky State ...
Kentucky State Rep. Charles Geveden, D-Wickliffe, center, talks with House Speaker Jody Richards, left, and Rep. Jimmie Lee, D-Elizabethtown, on the Kentucky House floor on Jan. 10 in Frankfort, Ky. Geveden, chairman of the House State Government Committee, said he was unsure when a bill allowing local school districts to hold voter referendums on posting the Ten Commandments in schools might come up for consideration because he wants to be certain of the bill's constitutionality.

State lawmakers in Kentucky, Missouri, and Colorado, like some of their federal counterparts in the U.S. House of Representatives, are seeking to proclaim that the Ten Commandments can be placed in public buildings without subverting the Constitution.

The Supreme Court has said that the religious codes can't be constitutionally promoted in public schools. But Ten Commandments displays have already been placed in several county and city buildings, including schools, in Kentucky. The American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky has sued a couple of municipalities and a school district challenging the displays. Those suits, however, did not stop Kentucky representatives from moving forward this week on two bills that would permit school officials to post the commandments in public schools.

Kentucky House Bill 45, which is pending in the House Judiciary Committee and sponsored by 12 representatives, states that school officials could make a “determination of whether and what places to post in the school a display of a copy of the Ten Commandments.” The bill provides that a notation would accompany the displays, saying that the “secular application of the Ten Commandments is clearly seen in its adoption as the fundamental legal code of Western Civilization and the Common Law of the United States.”

Kentucky House Bill 111 was filed before the start of the legislative session and has already won the backing of the Interim Joint Committee on State Government, which has recommended that the full House support the bill. The bill, which is simply called an “Act relating to education,” would allow voters in school districts to decide whether the Ten Commandments could be displayed in public classrooms. It states that the displays would be financed by private entities.

Jeff Vessels, executive director of the ACLU of Kentucky, called the First Amendment Center from the state Capitol in Frankfort where he spent yesterday morning trying to dissuade representatives from supporting the Ten Commandments bills.

“We are concerned about these bills because they suggest that schools can violate the religious freedom that is guaranteed to all of us in the First Amendment,” Vessels said. “Our issue is with the fact that these bills promote the Ten Commandments. Government has no role in promoting or denigrating religion. We certainly respect the rights of students to take a copy of the Ten Commandments to school with them or to wear a shirt that lists the commandments, but these bills are about government promoting certain religious viewpoints.”

Vessels added that House Bill 45's notation that the Ten Commandments have a secular application in our society would not save the bill from a constitutional challenge.

“This country's code of laws is not based on the Ten Commandments,” Vessels said. “In fact, our laws are based on many sources that predate Christianity.”

Vessels noted that the U.S. Supreme Court in 1980 invalidated a Kentucky law requiring the posting of Ten Commandments in public schools on church-state grounds. That law, like Kentucky House Bill 45, said each Ten Commandments display should include a notation about the “secular application” of the codes.

In Stone v. Graham, however, the high court held that “such an avowed secular purpose is not sufficient to avoid conflict with the First Amendment.” According to the court in Stone, the “pre-eminent purpose for posting the Ten Commandments on schoolroom walls is plainly religious in nature.”

Vessels said that despite that ruling, Kentucky lawmakers would probably pass the bills “simply because they are supported in many districts in this state.”

Lawmakers in Colorado and Missouri have also introduced bills calling for public displays of the Ten Commandments. The Missouri bill, introduced last week in the House, states that the Ten Commandments “may be displayed in public schools,” and that such displays promote “respect for our system of laws and the good of society and a declaration of fundamental principals (sic) that are the cornerstone of a fair and just society.”

Colorado's bill is the longest of the three states' Ten Commandments bills and also requires students to participate in a moment of “quiet reflection” at the start of each school day. State Sen. John Andrews introduced the bill, called “Measures to Prevent the Exclusion of America's Moral Heritage in the Teachings in Public Schools,” on Jan. 10.

Andrews' bill states that U.S. history can be understood only “in the context of the American people's deeply held belief, from earliest times to the present, in the reality of a Supreme Being and the authority of transcendent standards for human conduct.”

The Colorado bill then lays out the responsibilities of public schools to ensure that students are given the context to understand the nation's history.

First, the bill states that all public school teachers at the start of each day shall “conduct a brief period of quiet reflection for not more than sixty seconds with the participation of all the pupils,” and that teachers shall inform the students that they are observing “a moment of silence for reflection on our heritage as a free people in one nation under God.”

The bill also states that “each school district shall post in every public school classroom and in the main entryway in every public school a durable and permanent copy of the Ten Commandments.” Moreover, all of those displays must be accompanied by a note, which states in part that the religious codes have been “influential among the nations for 3,000 years” and have “contributed importantly to the American founding and remain a treasure of world civilization.”

Sue Armstrong, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, said her group was working to convince state lawmakers that Andrews' bill is an unconstitutional attempt to promote religion in public schools.

“Calling for posting the Ten Commandments is another attempt to mix church and state,” Armstrong said. “Our Bill of Rights does not allow for this type of government action.”

Armstrong said that if the bill became law, her group would challenge it.