- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 27, 2011

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board ultimately voted to restore the Ten Commandments displays, adopting a proposal that they be hung beside other historical documents, including a picture of Lady Justice, the text of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the Bill of Rights, the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, the Declaration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.”

Mr. Staver and attorneys for the school board also argued in support of their motion to dismiss that the board “has not mandated anything that excludes specific points of view.”

“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.

The high court in most cases has also banned the posting of the Ten Commandments, including the 1980 Stone v. Graham case, in which it struck down a Kentucky law requiring that a copy of the Ten Commandments be posted in every public school classroom. Copies of the Ten Commandments were paid for through private donations.

In Virginia, state Sen.-elect Charles W. Carrico Sr., Washington County Republican, introduced a constitutional amendment during this year’s General Assembly session that would allow prayer “and the recognition of religious beliefs, heritage, and tradition on public property, including public schools in order to secure further the people’s right to acknowledge God.”

The amendment cleared the Republican-controlled House, but was left in a Senate committee, and Mr. Carrico said he’ll continue to press the issue.

“I do intend to fight that battle as many times as I have to,” he said. “There’s more cases than you would imagine where people are intolerant of other people’s beliefs, and that’s not what our Constitution lays forward.

If we’ve got to spell it out so that everyone understands it, then that’s what we’ve got to do. It seems that in this country today that every religion is tolerated except for the Christian belief.”

Delegate David L. Englin, Alexandria Democrat, called the comments regarding Christianity “absurd,” saying that Mr. Carrico “doesn’t like the fact that the First Amendment of the Constitution protects minority religions from majority religions. His argument is with the Founding Fathers, not with anyone alive today.”

A 2007 study from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that nearly 80 percent of 35,000 American adults polled identified themselves as Christian.

“If a government entity is subjecting children to a particular religion, they’re in violation of the United States Constitution, plain and simple,” Mr. Englin said.

• David Sherfinski can be reached at dsherfinski@washingtontimes.com.

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