May 4, 2012
Free-speech groups and a southwest Virginia school division are squaring off over a lawsuit challenging the display of the Ten Commandments in a public high school.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia is suing on behalf of a student to remove the Ten Commandments from Narrows High School, saying the display violates the First Amendment's protection against government endorsement of religion. The Giles County School Board, represented by Liberty Counsel, has argued that the Ten Commandments are part of a larger presentation that includes other key historical documents.
Both sides will appear Monday before U.S. District Judge Michael Urbanski in Roanoke, asking him to rule in the case without going to trial. Urbanski previously has said he was interested in resolving the issue before the upcoming school year.
The student and the student's parent, known as Doe 1 and Doe 2, aren't identified in the court documents. Urbanski granted a protective order to shield them from harassment by people in the community who have pressed for the Ten Commandments display and showed anger toward those who disagreed with them.
The student says the posting of the Ten Commandments "makes me feel like an outsider because the school is promoting religious beliefs that I do not share."
"Filing this lawsuit has not been easy, and I would not have done it if I were not genuinely disturbed by the Ten Commandments in the school," the student said in a court document filed April 30. "I have had to go against school officials who have influence over my life and future."
The student also said in the statement that people have posted online comments suggesting that they should leave the county if they don't support the Ten Commandments, and that the student has had to "hide participation in this lawsuit from my closest friends and the person I am dating."
The board is asking Urbanski to rule in its favor, arguing that a private citizen put up the display and the school district didn't use public money to pay for it. It also argued that because the commandments were integrated among other historical documents, it isn't an official endorsement of religion but are part of teaching history.
The Ten Commandments have had a lengthy history in the conservative, rural area. The county's two high schools and three elementary/middle schools had posted the Ten Commandments for more than a decade. The Freedom From Religion Foundation, the ACLU's co-counsel in the lawsuit, objected to the displays in 2010 and requested their removal. School officials replaced them with the Declaration of Independence.
After a public outcry by ministers and local residents who wanted the schools to reflect their Christian beliefs, the school board unanimously voted in January 2011 to put the Ten Commandments back up — but removed them again the following month after Liberty Counsel attorneys advised them about such displays in the context of the First Amendment's Establishment Clause, which prohibits the government from favoring one religion over another.
Giles County residents held a rally last spring to demand that the Ten Commandments be returned to the schools. School board members voted 3-2 in June to rehang the biblical texts in Narrows High School as part of displays that include other U.S. historical documents including the Declaration of Independence, the Star-Spangled Banner and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.
The school board is seeking to strike depositions of several board members and others, along with numerous other pieces of evidence that plaintiffs presented describing the community's support of the displays on religious grounds. The ACLU has argued that community reactions and board members' testimony is relevant to demonstrating its contention that the purpose behind displaying the commandments is religious.