Judge Orders Mediation for Va. Ten Commandments Case

May 8, 2012

A federal judge overseeing a lawsuit challenging the display of the Ten Commandments in a Virginia public high school sent the case into mediation Monday.

Media outlets report that instead of making a ruling, U.S. District Judge Michael Urbanski urged both sides to consider whether the display could leave out four commandments that have "God" in the wording.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia had sued on behalf of a student to remove the Ten Commandments from Narrows High School, saying it violates the First Amendment's protection against government endorsement of religion.

The Giles County School Board, represented by Liberty Counsel, argued the Ten Commandments are part of a larger presentation that includes other historical documents.

Both sides wanted the judge to rule in the case without going to trial.

"I just wonder if there isn't a reasonable compromise," said Urbanski, who could still rule if the two sides don't come to an agreement.

The student and the student's parent, known as Doe 1 and Doe 2, weren'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."

The board argued 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 It also argued that because the commandments were integrated among other historical documents, it isn't an official endorsement of religion but are part of teaching history.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.

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