Commandments Clash: Va. County Has One Last Chance To Avoid A Lawsuit – And Should Take It

It’s time for a separation of church and school in Giles County, Va.

Public education officials in Giles County, Va., can’t say they weren’t warned.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia and the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) wrote to school officials recently telling them to remove Ten Commandments displays from the schools. The officials were also advised by their own attorney to take down the religious posters.

At first, they did. But when members of the community complained, the school board voted to put the Ten Commandments back into the schools.

The ACLU and the FFRF have warned the officials one last time: They have plaintiffs and are ready to file a lawsuit.

Today’s Washington Post reports that the battle in Giles County began 12 years ago, when school officials decided to post the Ten Commandments in the schools. A high school senior complained in 2004, but local officials ignored her.

The new round of objections is much more serious. Both the ACLU and FFRF have sent warning letters to school officials, pointing out that the school system is in clear violation of a 1980 Supreme Court decision called Stone v. Graham. In that ruling, the high court struck down a Kentucky law that mandated posting of the Ten Commandments in public schools.

The court rightly pointed out that the Ten Commandments are a religious document. They are found in the Old Testament and are clearly designed to impart religious instruction. At least half of them deal strictly with matters of how one ought to practice religion.

When a public school system posts the Ten Commandments, it is taking sides in theological matters that are none of its business. Why should officials in the Giles County schools care if students decide to worship “false gods”? (Exactly which gods are these, anyway? Does the school system keep a list?)

Should school officials get worked up if students bow to graven images? (Does that include a Roman Catholic who venerates a statute of a saint?)

Is it the schools’ job to ensure that students honor the Sabbath? (By the way, which day is that – Friday, Saturday or Sunday?)

Other provisions in the commandments reflect commonsense rules that are found in every religious or ethical tradition. I would hope that officials in Giles County would teach students not to murder, lie and steal even if those things weren’t mentioned in the Ten Commandments.

Giles County school officials didn’t ask for my advice, but here it is anyway: Don’t let this matter go to court. You will lose. These are challenging times for the economy, and I’m sure your school system has better ways to spend taxpayer money than squandering it on a hopeless court battle.

And please do not be swayed by the dulcet promises of slick Religious Right legal groups that vow to defend you for free. Sure, their lawyers will work on their own dime, but when you lose the case your school district will be handed a big, fat bill for the attorneys’ fees of the ACLU and the FFRF. The Religious Right legal group won’t pick up the tab for that.

Finally, I’d like to advise the school board that it needs to get out of the religion business – and I really must insist on this. Just stop. What you are doing is wrong. Deciding what faith (if any) children should learn about is a job for parents, not school officials.

And don’t give me that line about how you’re only trying to improve young people’s ethical behavior. If that’s your goal, you can do it without posting a specific religious document. Personally, I think there are some interesting ethical statements in the Wiccan Rede, the Eightfold Path of Buddhism and even the teachings of the ancient Greek philosopher Epictetus. But I suspect you’re not likely to post those, are you?

It’s time for a separation of church and school in Giles County. The fact that these two are jumbled up is apparent in the words of Jared Rader, principal of Macy McClaugherty Elementary School, who told The Post, “The commandments have been a compass for our lives. It’s something that the county feels strongly about, something we think our children should learn from.”

Great. If everyone in the county is so big on the Ten Commandments, I’m sure parents are already teaching their kids about them in the places where it makes sense to do that – at home and at church.

P.S. Monday is a federal holiday, and AU will be closed. "The Wall of Separation" will be on hiatus until Tuesday.