One Step Forward, One Step Back: Va. School Board Removes Commandments, But Adds Problematic Display

Most Americans are Christians and the Christian faith certainly has influenced morality for many, but the Commandments are not the basis of constitutional law.

Sometimes government entities manage to do something right and something wrong simultaneously.

The Giles County School Board voted unanimously last week to remove the Ten Commandments from a hallway display at Narrows High School in Narrows, Va., according to The Roanoke Times.

In its place, the board elected to put up a page titled “Roots of Democracy” from a history textbook. The poster-like page mentions the English Parliament, ancient Greece and the Enlightenment as contributing to democracy in America. But it also celebrates the “Judeo-Christian roots” of American government.

The document says: “The values found in the Bible, including the Ten Commandments and the teachings of Jesus, inspired American ideas about government and morality.”

If you’ve been following the situation in Giles County, then you know why this change was made. Last year the Virginia ACLU sued the school board on behalf of a parent and a student who wanted the Commandments display, which had been in place since 1999, removed.

In May, U.S. District Court Judge Michael Urbanski heard oral arguments in the case and ordered mediation. The Times reported that Urbanski suggested removing the first four commandments, which are explicitly religious in nature, and leaving the six more secular commandments.

This recent move by the board was apparently another attempt at compromise. Stephen Crampton, an attorney with Religious Right legal outfit Liberty Counsel, which represents the board, said he wasn’t sure exactly how the change would affect the lawsuit.

“That is the question, isn't it?” he said, according to the Times. “Ultimately, that remains to be seen. Obviously it will impact it significantly, because the lawsuit was a challenge, in effect, to that one document in the display.”

The ACLU, on the other hand, isn’t ready to speculate.

“Well, I was surprised there was a change in the display,” Rebecca Glenberg, an ACLU attorney, said, according to WTVR in Richmond.

“I really can’t say whether it’s a good or a bad thing until I’ve studied it more carefully and talked to the client,” she said.

What’s disturbing here is that the school board members don’t seem to understand what the problem is: namely, government-sponsored religious indoctrination.

The new display is constitutionally dubious and also bad history and bad education. “American ideas about government” are not drawn from the Bible or the teachings of Jesus. The U.S. Constitution is a secular document that mandates a secular government.  

Most Americans are Christians and the Christian faith certainly has influenced morality for many, but the Commandments are not the basis of constitutional law. After more than 225 years, it’s still legal to disrespect your parents (although you shouldn’t), covet your neighbor’s house and work on the Sabbath. And you can worship one god, twenty gods or decline to worship at all.

The Giles County School Board needs to learn to stop meddling in the religious lives of students. If parents want to teach their children about the Bible, the Ten Commandments and the teachings of Jesus, that’s their choice. The school, however, doesn’t have that right.

Maybe the board members need to go take a basic civics class.