A long-simmering battle in Virginia over the separation of church and state heads to federal court Monday, with a southwestern county school board fighting for the right to display the Ten Commandments in a public high school.
The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia, in Roanoke, will hear arguments in the Giles County School Board’s motion to dismiss a complaint brought by a high school student and the student’s parent arguing that the biblical display violates the plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights under the Constitution.
The Ten Commandments has been displayed in all county schools for at least a decade before a complaint in December led to their removal and being replaced with a copy of the Declaration of Independence.
The issue went back and forth for the better part of this year, with the Ten Commandments being taken down, then reposted amid outrage from residents who support the display. About 200 high school students in Giles County — about 285 miles southwest of Washington, D.C. — staged a walkout this spring in support of restoring the displays to the schools.
“This is Giles County, and Christ is a big, big, big part of Giles County,” said one student, according to court documents. “For those who don’t like it, go somewhere else.”
The school board ultimately voted to restore the Ten Commandments displays, adopting a proposal that they be hung beside other historical documents, including a picture of Lady Justice, the text of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the Bill of Rights, the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, the Declaration of Independence, the Virginia Declaration of Rights, the Mayflower Compact and the Magna Carta.
But the complaint, which uses pseudonyms for the plaintiffs, alleges that displaying the Ten Commandments “promotes a particular message to which ‘Doe 1’ does not subscribe. … the display sends a message to ‘Doe 1’ that he is an outsider and not a full participant in the school community. It also places coercive pressure on ‘Doe 1’ to suppress ‘Doe 1’s‘ personal beliefs and adopt the board’s favored religious views.”
“Doe 2,” a parent, is also listed as a plaintiff. In addition to hearing arguments for the school board’s motion to dismiss, the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, which is representing the plaintiffs, will also argue Monday for a motion to proceed using pseudonyms to protect itself from possible backlash from the community.
The defendant is being represented by Liberty Counsel, a nonprofit, pro bono legal-assistance group affiliated with the Rev. Jerry Falwell Sr.-founded Liberty University.
Mathew D. Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel and the dean of Liberty University’s School of Law in Lynchburg, Va., argued in court papers that the plaintiffs “cannot allege the facts necessary to place the square peg of the Giles County documents display into the round hole of an impermissible endorsement of religion.”
“The Board merely included one religious document in a display containing numerous historical documents that influenced the development of the laws in the nation and in Virginia.”
Attorneys for the school board argue their client’s resolution is not meant to mandate teaching anything in particular in district classrooms, but “merely expresses an intention to pay tribute to influential, historical documents.”
The issue is certainly not new to Virginia or other states.
The Supreme Court has long held that government cannot endorse religious belief, based on the First Amendment’s separation of church and state, which has resulted in bans on organized prayer in public schools.