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In court

ACLU sues Giles County school board over historical display that includes Bible passages

(Wikimedia Commons)

In court

Civil-liberties groups are suing the Giles County School Board in southwest Virginia for posting the Ten Commandments, contending that the display violates the Constitution's guarantee of separation of church and state. (See World Virginia's previous coverage, "Ten up," June 8)

The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia filed the federal lawsuit Tuesday against Giles County School Board in U.S. District Court in Roanoke on behalf of an unidentified Narrows High School student and the student's parent. The lawsuit says the display unconstitutionally promotes a specific religious faith and serves no secular purpose.

It seeks to have the Ten Commandments removed from school walls and to place a ban on further display of the biblical documents. Narrows High School is the only local school to display the documents so far, the ACLU said.

"The student feels like he is being told that he doesn't belong in the schools if he doesn't subscribe to the religious beliefs set forth in the Ten Commandments," Virginia ACLU legal director Rebecca Glenberg said Tuesday. "The parent feels like it's the parent's responsibility to educate their children about religious matters, and that the school should not be playing a part in that."

Superintendent Terry E. Arbogast declined to comment, and directed questions to Liberty Counsel, which plans to represent the school board.

Mathew Staver, chairman of the Christian legal advocacy group, said Tuesday that the school's display doesn't focus on the Ten Commandments, but includes it among documents significant to the development of U.S. law and government, including the Declaration of Independence.

"We believe that the display is constitutional; it's a historic overview," Staver said.

The county's two high schools and three elementary/middle schools had posted the Ten Commandments for more than a decade. Last year, the Freedom From Religion Foundation objected to the displays and requested their removal. School officials replaced them with the Declaration of Independence.

After a public outcry by Christian ministers and local residents who wanted the schools to reflect their Christian beliefs, the school board unanimously voted in January to put the Ten Commandments back up but removed them 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.

In May, residents held a rally in May to demand that the commandments be returned to the schools. School board members voted 3-2 in June to rehang the biblical texts 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.

Glenberg said that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that in evaluating the constitutionality of such a display, one must look at its history to discern the government's intent in posting the Commandments.

"The history here shows that the entire community was rallying around the Ten Commandments as a religious document," she said. "No one was agitating for a historical-documents display."

Staver told the Roanoke Times that the Ten Commandments represents just 10 percent of the display. "The observer is looking at a panoply of documents," Staver said, with the overall message being one of law and government and not just religion.

Shahn Wilborn, the minister of the Riverview Baptist Church in Ripplemead, Va. and one of the supporters for displaying the Ten Commandments in county schools, told the Bluefield Daily Telegraph that "We figured there would be a lawsuit. . . . We will continue on. As far as I am concerned, this has changed no one's opinion. The Ten Commandments are still supported here. We will fight it."

He added: "We have to protect our freedom from these type of suits. What gets lost in the shuffle is that our country was formed on Judeo-Christian values. . . . The Ten Commandments are part of our history and the basis for the laws we have. Posting these documents is not coercing someone into religion but displaying our history. They cannot change our history."

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Les Sillars

Les is a WORLD Radio correspondent and commentator. He previously spent two decades as WORLD Magazine’s Mailbag editor. Les directs the journalism program at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Va.

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