February 19, 2011

Commandments fuel school battle

A tiny Virginia county sees itself in a 'David vs. Goliath' conflict after an anonymous complaint.

By KEVIN SIEFF The Washington Post

PEARISBURG, Va. - Nearly 12 years ago, in the aftermath of the shootings at Columbine High School, officials quietly posted the Ten Commandments on the walls of the Giles County public schools. It was a natural reaction, said residents of this rural county peppered with churches, to such an alarming moral breakdown.

VIRGINIA RELIGION
click image to enlarge

Students at Giles High School in Pearisburg, Va., posted the Ten Commandments on lockers after the superintendent ordered framed displays to be removed from school walls. The school board voted to put the wall displays back up.

Kevin Sieff/The Washington Post

There the commandments stayed, within nondescript frames that also featured the first page of the U.S. Constitution, stirring little controversy until December. That's when an anonymous complaint prompted the superintendent to order the removal of the displays. The decision sparked such passionate community backlash that the county school board voted to post them again in January.

Now the fight appears headed to the courts as residents of Giles County, along Virginia's rugged, southwestern spine, fight what they call mounting pressure from Washington and Richmond to secularize their public institutions. The district also runs a so-called "Bible Bus" so that students can get privately organized Christian instruction off site during the middle of the school day.

"The commandments have been a compass for our lives," said Jared Rader, principal of the county's Macy McClaugherty Elementary School. "It's something that the county feels strongly about, something we think our children should learn from."

ACLU PLANS TO SUE

The commandments are featured on 8 1/2- by 11-inch pieces of paper in six schools, generally hung on white cinderblock near main entrances and hallways.

School officials say the displays should be legal because the commandments are a historical document, included as part of a monument to the principles -- some of them religious -- on which the country was founded.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation disagree. They plan to file a lawsuit on behalf of two plaintiffs, who have asked the court to withhold their names for fear of retribution.

"The school board is ignoring a core principle our country was founded on. Apparently they've never heard of the First Amendment or the Bill of Rights," said Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which describes itself as a national organization of atheists and agnostics. "And they're using our schoolchildren as pawns."

The displays were the idea of a Giles County pastor, and they have generated objections on at least one other occasion. In 2004, Sarah McNair, Giles High School senior, sent letters to county politicians, calling the display of the commandments an infringement on her rights and a "serious issue that cannot be ignored."

Both Virginia's secretary of education and the superintendent of public instruction dismissed her concerns, said McNair, now 23, who moved from Manassas, Va., to Giles County.

But when the issue flared again, in December, school officials consulted with legal counsel and decided to remove them. When students learned that the commandments had been removed, they distributed hundreds of photocopies of the edict, pasting them on lockers around the school. Weeks later, the halls were still papered with makeshift scrolls, next to photos of football players and fliers advertising sketch comedy routines.

"This whole thing just makes me feel small," said Kearsley Dillon, 16, a sophomore who helped distribute the commandments. "I have my faith, and that's the most important thing to me. But this is really discouraging. What can a 16-year-old do?"

UNANIMOUS OFFICIAL APPROVAL

The turning point was a raucous school board meeting attended by more than 100 Giles County residents. Hanging the commandments is "a right" and "a blessing" and "a moral obligation," residents said in the public forum.

By the end of the meeting, the school board had voted unanimously to restore the Ten Commandments. And the Board of Supervisors soon after decided to support the decision, agreeing to help fund the district's legal defense.

(Continued on page 2)

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