People often say that the United States Supreme Court has banned displays of the Ten Commandments in public school classrooms. But that's not quite accurate. In Stone v. Graham (1980), the court held that states may not require that the Ten Commandments be displayed in public classrooms, as that would violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. It did not go so far as to say that public school classrooms would not be permitted to hang such displays on their own, though lower courts have so held. In Stone v. Graham, the court ruled that the Kentucky statute in question had no secular legislative purpose and "the pre-eminent purpose for posting the Ten Commandments on schoolroom walls is plainly religious in nature. 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.'
Justice Rehnquist wrote a strongly worded dissent, criticizing the majority for concluding without considering any evidence that the statute had no secular legislative purpose and that the preeminent purpose for posting the commandments was plainly religious. While Rehnquist conceded the majority's conclusion that the Decalogue is "undeniably a sacred text;' he asserted that it is "equally undeniable ... as representatives of Kentucky determined, that the Ten Commandments have had a significant impact on the development of secular legal codes of the Western World." Rehnquist argued that the Establishment Clause didn't require the public sector to be "insulated from all things which may have religious significance or origin."
In another case in 2001, U.S. District Judge Jennifer Coffman ordered the Ten Commandments removed from public buildings in three Kentucky counties, saying that the Ten Commandments' history "bolstered the reasonable observer's perception of the state endorsement of religion."
The counties initially complied with the order and then re-posted the Ten Commandments along with the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. Judge Coffman didn't accept the revision and again ordered the removal of the display. Mathew Staver of Liberty Counsel announced that the case would be appealed. In the meantime the ACLU is filing similar lawsuits, county by county, across the nation.
Some local governments and state legislatures are fighting back. On July 17, 2001, the North Carolina senate, by a vote of 44-6, passed a law allowing public schools to post the Ten Commandments in the classroom as part of a larger display. Not long after, the North Carolina house passed the measure 94-18 and Governor Mike Easley announced he would sign the bill into law. There appears to be a nationwide movement among state legislatures to consider similar legislation. And in 2002, in West Union, Ohio, a school board voted to appeal a federal court order to remove from public schools stone tablets of the Ten Commandments that had been on display since 1997.
On the federal level, Congressman Robert Aderholt has introduced a bill entitled The Ten Commandments Defense Act. Aderholt's purpose behind the act is to "return to the individual states the power to make the decision of whether the Ten Commandments maybe displayed on or within publicly owned buildings." The bill, says Aderholt, doesn't force the states to do anything, but merely provides them the option. The congressman earlier introduced similar legislation that passed by a handy margin (248-180). The bill never became law, however, because it was attached as an amendment to another bill that was stalled due to different versions in the House and Senate that couldn't be reconciled.
Was this article helpful?