In Giles County school, will Ten Commandments stay or go?

Anonymous AP In this 1955 file photo Charlton Heston in charecter as Moses in “The Ten Commandments.” The two-year battle … Continued



In this 1955 file photo Charlton Heston in charecter as Moses in “The Ten Commandments.”

The two-year battle over posting the Ten Commandments on a high school wall in Giles County, Virginia has been polarizing, angry and downright nasty.

Last week, U.S. District Court Judge Michael Urbanski tried to avoid more litigation by ordering the warring parties to seek common ground through mediation.

In order to jump-start the peace process, Urbanski made an out-of-the-box suggestion: If references to “God” are the problem, why not eliminate the first four commandments (which explicitly mention God) and leave the remaining six (which do not) on the wall?

While the judge gets credit for creativity, his proposed solution won’t fix the problem and is likely to be rejected by both sides.

Proponents of posting the commandments will surely balk at editing holy Scripture to down play the holy. And opponents will no doubt object to retaining school-sponsored scriptures on the schoolhouse wall – whatever the number of divine commands.

Under current Supreme Court rulings, the constitutional problem with posting the Ten Commandments in government spaces is less about references to the deity and more about purpose, context and history. It’s a bit convoluted – but let me try to explain.

More than 30 years ago, the high court ruled that posting the commandments in public schools is state promotion of religion in violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause (Stone v. Graham).

While acknowledging that the commandments contain moral guidance (the purpose of posting them, according to school officials), the court held that the primary effect of displaying them in public schools would be to send a religious message endorsed by the state.

But then in 2005, a sharply divided court muddied the Establishment Clause waters by upholding one Ten Commandments display on government property and striking down another – all on the same day.

In the first (Van Orden v. Perry), the court upheld the constitutionality of a Ten Commandments monument on the grounds of the Texas State Capitol. In the second (McCreary County v. ACLU), the court struck down commandments displays in Kentucky county courthouses.

Both were 5-4 decisions, with four justices voting to invalidate both displays and four voting to uphold both. Justice Stephen Breyer provided the fifth vote in both rulings.

What made the difference (at least for Breyer)? The Texas monument had been there 40 years and was part of an overall secular display of some 20 other historical monuments, but the Kentucky displays were of recent origin and were created to promote a religious message.

To paraphrase a quip from Justice Clarence Thomas, a Ten Commandments display on government property violates the First Amendment –except when it doesn’t.

Which brings us back to Giles County: Is the Ten Commandments plaque in the high school more like the Texas monument in the park or the Kentucky display on the courthouse wall?

In an apparent attempt to resemble the Texas case, Giles County school officials recently surrounded the commandments with a variety of other historical documents such as the Magna Carta and the Declaration of Independence.

It might work – but a similar tactic failed in Kentucky. In the McCreary County case, the court ruled that because county officials had a history of using the display to promote a religious message, they did not cure the constitutional problem by adding other documents after the display was challenged.

For mediation to work in Giles County, opponents of posting the commandments will have to forgive the history of school promotion of religion –and accept the current display as an educational exhibit of historic documents.

Such a compromise is highly unlikely given the bitter conflict of the last two years. It will then be up to Judge Urbanski to decide if the commandments stay or go.

What’s particularly sad about divisive and expensive fights like this is how easily they can be avoided.

If Giles County school officials had heeded the First Amendment in the first place, they could have focused on finding a constitutional place for the Ten Commandments in schools – teach about them in history classes, allow students to form Bible clubs, protect the right of students to appropriately share their faith – and avoided using the school hallway to promote a religious message.

Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center and director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum in Washington.

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  • BrianWestley

    Obeying the law is too difficult for Christian supremacists; they’d rather go right to government promotion of their religion.

  • PhilyJimi

    What a joke, pig headed Christians…

  • persiflage

    People sometimes forget that Virginia is as backward as the rest of the Deep South when it comes to religion in government.

    Proximity to the nation’s capital seems to have had no effect as far as keeping Protestant fundamentalists out of the public sector – and out of state government.

  • RickWatcher

    If you remove the first 4 commandments you may as well forget about the last 6 having any effect on anyone and you can see the truth of this all around us today. Crime, unbrideled passions, creed, unnatural lust, and any other evil is running wild throughout the country.
    The attempt to remove God in so many places across the country is just one more proof that the idea our fathers intended a seperation of church and state is a fallacy brought about in the last 70 or so years by socialist, communist, calling themselves progressives, and godless individuals who want a life free of personnal responsibility in whatever they want to do and they do it in the guise of protecting freedom. And they do this by attempting to stiffle the freedoms of those with an opposing viewpoint.
    Be warned such tactics is used by those who refuse to accept truth and was used by such people that brought us the NAZI death camps, the Socialist Russian gulags, Communist Chinese purges, and on and on.
    Better wake up to the truth before it’s too late.

  • haveaheart

    Here’s an idea —

    Why not just call them the “Ten Suggestions”? That way, everybody is happy — the religious fanatics get a full count, and the rest of us can just ignore them.

  • cricket44

    Your rant is *completely* inane. I’m so sorry that YOUR notion of God is so weak. Mine is not.

    The truth is that holding on tighter and tighter to old notions that hurt people does NOT bring anyone closer to God.

    Your use of the Nazi death camps as some kind of example is inexcusable and completely insulting to those who suffered and perished.

  • XVIIHailSkins

    You are so deliriously paranoid and simple I can’t help but pity you. Americans don’t want to be free from personal responsibility, they want to be free from the tyranny of a deluded christian majority. The sad truth is that the ‘godless’ people you fear so blindly are far more concerned with morality than most religionists in the world. I care about right and wrong, fair and unfair, and you simply care about dogma, as evidenced by your ghastly, literal interpretation of some of the more insane and genocidal passages of the bible.

    I take comfort in the fact that you are ultimately fighting a losing battle. Religion ceded its monopoly over human discourse about two centuries ago, and now that people have a choice between dogma and rational thought, well, obviously you’ve noticed the results all around you.

  • XVIIHailSkins

    Keep it to yourself, keep it away from me, and for the sake of all humanity keep it out of schools.

    The real ‘abortions’ we should be concerned about aren’t happening in hospitals, they’re happening in the minds of innocent children who get snatched up by a sinister delusion before they even learn how to think.

  • amelia45

    Perhpas a local Muslim mosque and a Buddhist temple would agree to come up with their most sacred writings on morality – just a page – and those could be displayed on the wall along with the Biblical Ten Commandments. Of course, if any other religion requested it also be represented they would also have to be allowed.

    While I started this somewhat in jest, I actually think that could be a great place for a history or literature teacher to send their students for ideas on writing papers that show research and critical thinking skills.


    4 of the 10 Commandments are only about the primacy of the Jewish religion, so only 6 are actually applicable to those who are not christian or jewish.

    And none of the remaining ones are about birth control or homosexuality.

    I won’t go into how easily and readily the true believers in the ten commandments break the other 6. They got weasel room for everything in those religions.


    The people who brought you the Nazi death camps were good Christians, mainly Lutherans and Catholics.

    The Holocaust was the culmination of a 1700 year war on the Jews by the Christians.

  • usapdx

    All Americans can pratice or not pratice a religion by our supreme law, the Constitution. Why should any type of a religion be allowed in any public school? The line is drawn on no religion of any kind be in our public schools period.

  • edallan

    It is so sad that the state that has given the nation advocates for freedom of religion like George Washington (“To bigotry no sanction”), Thomas Jefferson, and George Mason has also given us Christianists like Pat Robertson, the Falwells, and the members of the Giles County School Board. What a WASTE of taxpayer money — just so that some people can attempt to force their particular theology onto others.

    In his preface to the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus states (Matthew 6) that people who try to show off how “religious” they are are getting all the reward they are going to get here now because they’re not going to get any in heaven. But I guess that this is just one of the many parts of the Gospel that the Bible-thumpers never bother reading.

    In any event, at most only Nine Commandments would need to be posted, because the Christianists have nothing but disdain for the one about not bearing false witness.

  • jade_alpha

    Oh man…l’m a terrible atheist… I never build death camps or eat babies or anything…

  • Sadetec


    1) Thou should maybe consider having no other gods before me.
    2) Thou shalt not, if it isn’t too much trouble, make unto thee any graven image.
    3) Thou might try not to take the name of the lord thy God in vain, unless it’s too gawd-damn hard.
    4) Keep the sabbath day to sanctify it, unless you have other things planned.
    5) Honour thy father and thy mother; although if they’re being a pain, just ignore them.
    6) Thou shalt not kill, not without a fairly good reason anyway.
    7) Thou shalt not commit adultery, unless you just can’t help yourself.
    8) Thou shalt not steal, or at least don’t get caught.
    9) Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour, unless you figure he had it coming.
    10) Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife; although if she’s really hot… really really hot… y’know like Beyonce or something… or that one who was in that Fantastic Four movie, what was her name?… well… y’know… !!


    The 10 Commandments should be in every schools house and prison in America! Secularization of church and state sure isn’t working, turn on the news-we’re a social and financial basketcase now that we’ve embraced moral relativity! When anything goes, we get anarchy folks-the dark kind!!

    Time Magazine interview with Einstein in his 50s:
    To what extent are you influenced by Christianity? “As a child I received
    instruction both in the Bible and in the Talmud. I am a Jew, but I am enthralled
    by the luminous figure of the Nazarene.”
    Do you accept the historical existence of Jesus? “Unquestionably! No one can
    read the Gospels without feeling the actual presence of Jesus. His personality
    pulsates in every word. No myth is filled with such life!


    Edallan: thank you for quoting the Bible/Jesus!

  • Carstonio

    Half of the Commandments have nothing to do with moral guidance and everything to do with sectarian doctrine. There’s no way a Hindu or a Buddhist could follow all 10 and remain true to his religion. Posting them in schools reduces religion to a battle flag.


    Religion is and always has been nothing more than a battle flag.

  • Catken1

    If you disagree with the American core value of religious freedom, including the freedom for others to choose NOT to follow your religion, then please move somewhere else and start a theocracy.

    We are not nearly the social “basket case” that nations and cultures were and are when religion was imposed on the citizenry from the top – no Inquisitions, no brutal religious warfare, no beatings for women on the streets because a lock of hair emerges from their head covering or because they show an ankle, no restrictions barring large chunks of the citizenry from office or universities or public life in general because they belong to the “wrong” faith, no justification from religion for wife-beating or child abuse, etc., etc., etc.

    Financially – well, the people in financial control in this country mostly call themselves Christian, frequently loudly and boastfully so. If you don’t approve of our financial situation, I suggest that it’s not the secularists you have a problem with. (I also don’t see that religion-dominated countries, even those run by your preferred religion, lack for financial downturns, or even for catastrophes, famines and mass starvation.)

  • PhillyJimi

    How much more obvious can it be that a public school can’t display any religious symbols supporting a specific religion? Just read the first amendment.

  • PhillyJimi

    DRJJJ – how silly are you! As if just posting the 10 commandments will magically fix what is wrong with the world. Are the same 10 commandments taught in the catholic church? Well how well did that work out for the priest who raped little boys?

    You like to quote Eisenstein as if his views on religion are supposed to be important. Physics yes he was important but as far a god and religion his guess was a good as anyone else’s.

  • csintala79

    Of the ten, six deal with prohibitions that are fairly universal to all societies, e.g., thou shall not murder. There doesn’t seem to be a problem with posting these as even secularists would probably agree they should underpin society. The remaining four, e.g., Thou shall have no other god before me, are specific to the religions of the book, i.e., Judaism, Islam and Christianity. They are irrelevant to non-believers and non-people of the book, e.g., Buddhists. As such they have no place in a public facility.

  • csintala79

    Yes, for starters Muslims could post their Five Pillars, i.e., faith or belief in the Oneness of God and the finality of the prophethood of Muhammad; establishment of the daily prayers; concern for and almsgiving to the needy; self-purification through fasting; and the pilgrimage to Mecca for those who are able.

    Then the Buddhists could post:

    The Four Noble Truths, i.e., life means suffering, the origin of suffering is attachment, the cessation of suffering is attainable, there is a path to the cessation of suffering

    And the Eightfold Path, i.e., Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration.

    As the Buddhists don’t list a requirement for belief or worship of a god or gods, their tenets should be less offensive.

  • csintala79

    For non-Christian, the ones related to the Judaeo-Christian religions, e.g., belief in one god, are not commandments. They are unsolicited suggestions at best. The ones dealing with not harming others, e.g., thou shall not kill, are universal, although this one, Number Six, has been viewed by Christians as only a suggestion for two milennia, e.g., kill a commie for Christ.


    And us Hipster Beatnik Abstract Impressionist Atheists could post the One True Commandment by William Burroughs:

    “This world would be a much better place if everyone could just mind their own business and let others do the same. Most of the trouble in this world has been caused by folks who can’t mind their own business, because they have no business of their own to mind, any more than a smallpox virus has.”

  • YaddaYaddaWhatever

    DRJJJ, It’s easy to cherry pick Einstien quotes on religion. Here’s what he had to say about buddhism:

    “Buddhism has the characteristics of what would be expected in a cosmic religion for the future: It transcends a personal God, avoids dogmas and theology; it covers both the natural and spritual; and it is based on a religious sense aspiring from the experience of all things, natural and spiritual, as a meaningful unity.” — Albert Einstein

    “If there is any religion that would cope with modern scientific needs it would be Buddhism.” — Albert Einstein

  • Counterww

    Sorry, soddi, but if you really think the people that brought the world the nazi death camps actually read the gospels or the letters of ail and followed Christ,s edict, or what paul had to say… Then you are a fool. Tos guys used christinity as a facade and many in the inner circle of hitler were into the occult. Your false assertions don’t wash.

  • TopTurtle

    I agree with you mostly, except what’s the point of posting the 6 not-so-religious commandments. If schools want to post reasonable behavior guidelines, fine. Taking those guides from the Bible is merely a religious ploy to get as much of their religion into schools as they can.

  • TopTurtle

    There’s a great skeptical guideline that applies here: before you try to debunk something, make sure there is something to debunk. When people say things like “look at how terrible the world is today” I wonder where their evidence is. The economy isn’t great, but where’s the evidence that the US is less moral than it was in the past? Violent crime and crime in general is fairly low in historical terms.