Advice To Giles County: Thou Shalt Not Gamble With Scarce Public School Funds

The Giles County, Va., School Board has been on a Ten Commandments kick for quite a while.

Across the country, cash-strapped public schools are scrambling to keep it together. In many districts, teacher salaries are stagnant, and class sizes are growing.

This would not seem to be a good time for any public school to risk losing scarce funds by going on a Ten Commandments crusade.

Yet that’s exactly what’s going on in Giles County, Va. The school board there voted 3-2 earlier this week to bring a display of the Commandments and nine other “historic documents” to the district’s schools.

The school board has been on this kick for quite a while. The Ten Commandments had been displayed in the schools but were removed after complaints. Rather than accept that a public school is no place for the promotion of religion, school officials decided to spend time and resources coming up with a new display they think will pass muster.

Board members know they are likely to be sued. The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia and the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) have already warned school officials that if they move ahead with this plan, a lawsuit is very likely.

Stubbornly, the board is plowing ahead. Members may believe they are safe because Mat Staver and his Liberty Counsel have agreed to defend them for free. The Religious Right group, which is affiliated with the late Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, won’t be of much help, however, if the county loses in court and has to pay the legal expenses incurred by the ACLU and the FFRF.

These costs can be considerable. In McCreary and Pulaski counties in Kentucky, someone got the bright idea to post the Commandments at the local courthouses back in 1999. The ACLU warned officials that they were going to get sued. County officials refused to listen (and all the voters said, “Amen!”). The ACLU sued, and the case went all the way to the Supreme Court, where the counties lost.

The case has dragged on, and now these counties have been handed a bill for $456,881 to pay the ACLU’s legal costs. The insurance provider doesn’t cover expenses like this, so what to do? Well, McCreary County – a poverty-stricken rural community of about 17,000 residents – has been reduced to begging. The McCreary County Record reported that the county has set up an account at a local bank for donations. Judge-Executive Doug Stephens was excited because a $100 check arrived the other day. (Only $456,781 to go!)

Hey, Giles County, the Record also reports this: “On the advice of their attorneys with Liberty Counsel, the counties continued to appeal in hopes that the new, more conservative high court would reverse itself. But the Supreme Court declined to hear the case again in February.”

I wonder how much of a donation Mat Staver will make to the McCreary/Pulaski bailout fund.

Public schools exist to teach young people a variety of secular subjects – English, math, science, etc. If the youth of Giles County need religious instruction, I’m sure their parents are capable of taking them to any number of churches in the area. There they can meditate on the Ten Commandments to their heart’s content. Pushing a religious code is not the school’s job.

One more thought on this: School officials may believe their display, which they call “The Foundations of American Law,” will survive because it contains more than the Ten Commandments. Indeed, some of the documents are quite worthy of study. For example, the display includes the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom and the Bill of Rights.

But other items appear to have been added simply for their religious content. Consider the inclusion of the sheet music for “The Star-Spangled Banner.” (The fourth verse contains the lines: “Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just/And this be our motto: ‘In God is our trust.’”)

“The Star-Spangled Banner” was written by Francis Scott Key during the War of 1812 – considerably after the foundation of the nation. (Trivia: It’s sung to the tune of an old English drinking song called “To Anacreon in Heaven.”) This document is a foundation of American law?

I don’t think so. I think it was added because it contains a reference to God and for no other reason.

I also think the school board in Giles County is doing a great disservice to the community by possibly squandering tax funds like this. Those dollars belong in the classroom, not the courtroom.

There’s still time to change course, and I urge school officials in Giles do so. The alternative could end up being quite expensive.