State lawmakers seek public-school inclusion of religious ideas

Tuesday, January 25, 2000

Lawmakers in Indiana and South Dakota have joined a growing number of states that are taking steps to promote Christianity in their public schools.

A couple of Indiana state representatives have introduced bills that would allow schools to teach creationism and post Ten Commandments displays in their rooms. And yesterday, the South Dakota Senate unanimously passed a bill that would allow school officials to post the Decalogue in public schools.

Despite a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that has barred the Christian creation story from being taught in public schools, Republican State Rep. Dennis K. Kruse introduced a bill this month that would allow school boards to “require the teaching of various theories concerning the origin of life, including creation science,” within public schools.

In 1987, Justice William Brennan, writing for the majority in Edwards v. Aguillard, invalidated an Arkansas law that barred public schools from teaching evolution unless creation science was also taught. Brennan said that the public schools were no place for government promotion of religious dogma.

“Families entrust public schools with the education of their children, but condition their trust on the understanding that the classroom will not purposely be used to advance religious views that may conflict with the private beliefs of the student and his or her family,” Brennan wrote. “Students in such institutions are impressionable and their attendance is involuntary.”

Kruse's bill is pending in Indiana's House Committee on Education. He says his bill does not force schools to teach creation science, but only allows them to if they also teach evolution.

Some Christian fundamentalists believe that evolution, the Darwinian theory that life forms evolved over millions of years, undermines students' belief in Christianity and therefore they have sought legislative action to force public school science classes to also cover 'creation science.' Creation science is based on the belief that a theistic being created the Earth and its inhabitants in a matter of days.

Last year, state education officials in Kansas and Kentucky de-emphasized evolution in their states' science-education guidelines.

And Indiana and South Dakota can be added to the growing list of states and cities urging the placement of the Ten Commandments in public places.

Indiana State Rep. Jerry L. Denbo, a Democrat, has introduced a bill that “authorizes the display of the Ten Commandments on real property owned by the state.” Republican State Sen. Kent Adams has introduced an identical bill in the Indiana Senate.

Displays of the Decalogue have appeared in Kentucky, Tennessee and Ohio. Christian-based groups, such as the Family Research Council, suggest that the Decalogue should be used in public schools, in particular, to prevent or cure moral deviancy.

In 1980, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Stone v. Graham that Kentucky could not require the posting of the Decalogue in public schools. “The pre-eminent purpose for posting the Ten Commandments on schoolroom walls in plainly religious in nature,” the high court concluded. The court said that posting the religious texts on public school walls serves “no 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,” the court wrote. “However desirable this might be as a matter of private devotion, it is not a permissible state objective under the Establishment Clause.”

John Krull, executive director of the Indiana Civil Liberties Union, said that his group was working to dissuade lawmakers from supporting the bills.

“Both bills violate the Constitution and attempt to establish a state religion,” Krull said. “The last time I checked, the First Amendment says that it is a no-no.”

The South Dakota Senate yesterday approved a bill that would allow school districts to post the Decalogue in their schools. (Editor's note: The Associated Press originally reported, and this story originally said, that the bill allowed school districts to require Ten Commandment displays. The bill as later approved by the full South Dakota Legislature and sent to Gov. William Janklow states that “the Ten Commandments may be displayed in any public school classroom, public school building, or at any public school event, along with other objects and documents of cultural, legal, or historical significance that have formed and influenced the legal and governmental systems of the United States and the State of South Dakota.” Added to the bill were a couple of safeguards against potential litigation. The bill states that the Ten Commandments “shall be” displayed in a similar manner as other objects and documents, and that the religious codes “may not be presented or displayed in any fashion that results in calling attention to it apart from the other displayed objects and documents.”)

Senate Democrat Jim Lawler, sponsor of the bill, said public schools should expose students to Christian morals and that he was not concerned about possible lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the bill.

The South Dakota House will now consider the bill.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.