Push For Ten Commandments To Return To Schools

By: - March 2, 2000 12:00 am

The Ten Commandments are experiencing a renaissance in states debating bills that would display the Big 10 in schools alongside historical documents. Emphasizing history, not religion, is a strategy that Commandments backers hope will skirt court challenges.

Indiana just passed a Ten Commandments law, while South Dakota is on the verge of enacting similar legislation. Lawmakers are currently examining Commandments legislation in Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri and Oklahoma.

A setback for the movement occurred in Colorado, where a legislator who introduced a Big 10 bill opted to table the tablets after encountering opposition.

The renewed interest in putting the Bible’s best-known ethical code on school campuses comes after a nationwide spate of school shootings that left students and teachers dead. The schoolhouse death of a 6-year-old Michigan first-grader Tuesday at the hands a classmate further adds to the tragic litany.

A potential impediment to the Ten Commandments thrust is found in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which mandates “that the Government maintain strict neutrality, neither aiding nor opposing religion.”

Opponents also point out that Big 10 bills run counter to the First Amendment’s prohibition on laws “respecting the establishment of religion,” a constitutional clause the Supreme Court has ruled erects a “wall of separation” between church and state.

Backers scoff that Ten Commendment bills fail to constitute a state declaration of religion.

Rob Boston, a spokesman for the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, a religious, multi-faith organization, is skeptical of claims that the Commandments are merely historical.

“Rather than address the serious issues underlying youth violence, legislatures are rushing to a quick fix,” Boston says. “Some legislators continue to believe that mandatory religion in public school will solve these complex problems.”

School districts were able to freely display the Ten Commandments prior to a 1980 U.S. Supreme Court case, Stone vs. Graham, that originated in Kentucky. The high court wrote that merely because the Kentucky legislature said the Ten Commandments have a secular use didn’t “necessarily make it so.”

Stone vs. Graham lit a fire under J.C. “Bo” Ausmus III, a freshman Kentucky state representative who’s written legislation to bring the Big 10 back to Kentucky schools.

“It was a Kentucky decision that got the Ten Commandments out of the schools, and I’m bound and determined to get them back,” says Ausmus, a Republican.

Ausmus’ bill would also post historical documents such as the Declaration of Independence, Magna Carta and the Constitution, along with the Ten Commandments. When Stone vs. Graham was heard back in 1980, some of the Supreme Court justices involved in the case took pains to mention circumstances where it might be acceptable to display the Commandments in schools.

“We took (the justices’) exact language and put it in bill form,” Ausmus says. His Ten Commandments measure has bipartisan support in the Kentucky legislature.

Last year, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a Ten Commandments bill allowing schools and courtrooms to post the moral code. The measure still needs Senate approval.

On the legal front, Commandments proponents believe the conservative faction of the current Supreme Court might reverse the 20-year-old Stone vs. Graham decision.

In the court of public opinion, recent polls indicate that prevailing attitudes create a friendly climate for Ten Commandments legislation.

A Princeton University survey published by the Pew Center for Civic Journalism indicates 75 percent of the respondents believe public schools should teach “values, respect and courtesy” in addition to academics.

Following the dizzying explosion of schoolhouse violence that rocked Oregon, Kentucky and Colorado, among other states, some shell shocked Americans are likely wondering whether abandoning school prayer and the Ten Commandments was the correct course of action.

“My resolve was only strengthened” by the shootings in Kentucky and Colorado, Ausmus says. “There is no question we are in moral crisis.”

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