How schools circumvent ban on Decalogue

In Kentucky, Ten Commandments find a place among students; one school even has a chapel.

Most people thought the issue was decided: The ACLU had forced three Kentucky counties to take down copies of the Ten Commandments that had been posted in schools, post offices, and other public places.

But they would have underestimated the resolve of officials here in Harlan County, who quickly got to work thinking a way around the injunction. They simply bundled the Commandments with other classic texts, such as the Magna Carta and the Declaration of Independence, and reposted them as "historical documents."

It's just one of several recent actions that have shown how determined some in the Bible Belt are to reintroduce religious elements into public spaces, often testing the legal limits of rulings designed to keep church and state separate. One high school here opened a "chapel" this spring, complete with pews, angelic figures, and an altarlike podium. The room, the school maintains, is a nonreligious "quiet room."

Such attempts to side-step the First Amendment stem in part from a growing conviction among many parents and administrators here that school violence can be traced to emotional isolation and moral abdication at home. They contend that schools need to try to fill that vacuum - not to save the souls of lost students, but to ensure the safety of their classmates.

"It's a very hot issue around the country," says Erik Stanley, a litigator at Liberty Counsel, a legal-defense organization. "It has a lot to do with the decline in character and morality that people have seen within the public schools." In addition to Kentucky, South Dakota, Indiana, and Ohio have also passed laws or resolutions that allow, or even call for, posting the Ten Commandments in public spaces. At least 11 other states are considering such measures.

The Supreme Court banned the practice in 1980, but advocates of posting the commandments contend that bundling them with other documents gets around the ruling. Some call it the "creche strategy," since it takes a legal page from defenders of nativity scenes in public places. They've found that courts allow such displays if they are packaged with Santa Claus, reindeer, and other nonreligious images.

The ACLU rejects that argument and, late last year, asked the court to hold the Kentucky counties in contempt. The judge in the case is expected to make a preliminary ruling on the motion within days.

"It's bad history and bad law," says David Friedman, general counsel for the ACLU of Kentucky. "This is a pretty bald-faced attempt to have religious texts on the walls of county government and diluting it as much as they think is necessary for a court to say, 'OK, we'll tolerate it.' "

That effort to reintroduce religion is evident here in Cumberland High School, in the heart of eastern Kentucky coal country. Above a dusty trophy case - together with reproductions of other documents, such as the Mayflower Compact - hang Moses's 10 laws of conduct. Down the hall, in a refurbished janitor's closet, is the "quiet room."

When the ACLU objected to the room last month, the school simply removed an image of clasped hands and a Bible verse.

"We have not had a single complaint about the room from anyone local," says Don Disney, who championed the idea. He is a retired coal miner with a granddaughter at the school. "We never even thought about the church-state issue because it's strictly volunteer. There's no forced prayer. It's not only nondenominational, it's nonreligious as far as I'm concerned."

But Mr. Friedman is not satisfied. "We have serious questions, still, about the physical construct," he says. "There are pews with crosses at the ends of them and figurines of angels in the room. The look of the room is far from neutral."

If the historical-records strategy is a smokescreen, it may be too effective. At Cumberland High and at the nearby Harlan County school administration building, the Ten Commandments aren't even represented as a separate document. Instead, they're buried within the text of a reproduction of the front page of a 1983 edition of the Congressional Record. A casual reader could well miss seeing them altogether.

While posting of the Ten Commandments continues in scattered school districts and is debated in state legislatures, the real action is taking place in the courts. In one case, the ACLU brought suit against the state of Ohio, demanding that it drop the motto "With God all things are possible."

An appeals court recently ruled in favor of the state, but Friedman thinks that decision may ultimately bolster the ACLU position in Kentucky. He believes that the majority's ruling separates the motto from its biblical roots and focuses on its message of possibility. Posting the Ten Commandments, he says, has no such ambiguity. "It is not simply aspirational. It contains four or five religious commands - against idolatry, for monotheism, for Sabbath worship - something a secular state has absolutely no valid reason for articulating."

On Tuesday, those who oppose posting the commandments got a boost when the Supreme Court declined to hear a case about an Indiana monument displaying the Commandments. The court let stand a lower court ruling that the monument's display was unconstitutional.

But supporters of posting the laws say they still hope to bring their case eventually to the Supreme Court. Despite its clear-cut ruling in 1980, they are confident the historical-documents defense will hold up - and point out that the Decalogue is represented in an image of Moses etched in the wall behind where the chief justice sits.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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