RICHMOND, Va. - A southwest Virginia school district is reposting copies of the Bible's Ten Commandments in all county schools, despite concerns that doing so is unconstitutional.
The five-member Giles County School Board voted unanimously to restore the framed, 4-foot-tall, biblical texts after parents and local ministers were upset about their removal from the district's five schools and its technology center. The decision came even though the board's attorney had previously advised that such Christian displays represent unconstitutional government endorsement of religion.
The Roanoke Times reported that the school district rehung the commandments Friday.
The Ten Commandments were up on school walls in Giles County for at least a decade next to framed copies of the U.S. Constitution. School officials took them down and replaced them with the Declaration of Independence in mid-December after a resident complained. The board reversed that decision Thursday after about eight parents and pastors, joined by a throng of supporters, told the board that the schools had a moral obligation to reinforce God's teachings.
"The board, after hearing comments from some members in our community, they felt it was the right thing to do," said Superintendent Terry Arbogast, who noted that school officials didn't anticipate the public outcry.
Arbogast said that the Commandments would be back on the walls by the end of Friday.
The U.S. Supreme Court previously ruled that it's unconstitutional for public schools to post the Ten Commandments, and the First Amendment guarantees separation of church and state on the federal, state and local levels.
"We need to kind of wait and see what's going to happen, whether we are going to have a suit filed," said Arbogast, who has headed the division for seven years.
For the School Board to cave in to public sentiment and knowingly override the law is shockingly disrespectful, said Anne Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. The posters were removed in December on the advice of the school board's attorney after the Wisconsin-based group notified Arbogast about the issue.
"What if it were Koranic verses? Can you imagine the uproar?" she said in a telephone interview.
"If a public official on the school board can't stand up to peer pressure and uphold the Constitution, there's something wrong," Gaylor said. "There ought to be a consequence for public officials who flout the law. And the loser is the taxpayers who end up paying the bill for a losing lawsuit."
The matter is not a free-expression issue, because First Amendment rights protect individuals, not government entities such as public school divisions, said Kent Willis, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia.
In some circumstances the Commandments could be posted in a classroom in a broader educational context, such as a religious-history class, Willis said, "but that is not the situation here."
He noted that no one is preventing students from bringing copies of the Ten Commandments to school or carrying them in their backpacks — and parents are free to teach their children whatever they choose.
The civil-rights groups say they hope school officials voluntarily remove the Ten Commandments, but they're considering legal action in the event they remain. A lawsuit would require a Giles County student to come forward as a plaintiff, and such a young person potentially could face alienation for going against the majority.
"Anywhere, perhaps particularly in a small community, stepping out and being part of a federal lawsuit involves taking some risk," Willis said.