Debating the Display of Ten Commandments in Public Schools and Buildings

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In Giles County, Virginia, the school board has removed displays of the Ten Commandments in its schools. The county thought that posting the Ten Commandments, along with the first part of the United States Constitution, might help increase moral values.

There had been few complaints since the Commandments were posted almost twelve years ago. But recently, civil liberties groups had threatened to take the county to court if it did not remove them.

The United States Supreme Court permits the Ten Commandments to be on public property so long as the goal of displaying them is not to gain support for religion. But in nineteen eighty, the Court ruled that the Ten Commandments cannot be shown in public schools because displaying them shows support of religion by the government.

Jewish and Christian holy books say the Ten Commandments were laws given to the prophet Moses by God. Many Americans believe the country was founded on Judeo-Christian beliefs. Many of their beliefs are expressed in the Ten Commandments.  They are a set of rules against murder, stealing, cheating, adultery and profanity.

Douglas Laycock is a professor of constitutional law at the University of Virginia School of Law in Charlottesville. He says the Supreme Court has ruled that governments must be neutral about religious teachings.

DOUGLAS LAYCOCK: “Putting up the Ten Commandments in a way that promotes the Jewish and Christian scriptures is a violation of the Constitution, and especially if they do it in a public school. Parents are entitled to send their children to school without having to proselytize somebody having somebody else’s religion.”

Officials in Giles County say they may put the Ten Commandments back on the walls of the schools but will add other historical documents. Professor Laycock says it is possible that might satisfy a court.

DOUGLAS LAYCOCK:  “Whether or not they can keep the Ten Commandments on the wall…depends on how serious and plausible the things they put around it are. And, whether it looks like a genuine secular display that happens to include the Ten Commandments or whether it looks like just an excuse for putting this religious document on the wall.”

Since the Supreme Court ruling in nineteen eighty, more conservative justices have been appointed to the Court. Professor Laycock says some conservative activists believe this new, more conservative Court might be willing to once again permit the Ten Commandments to be displayed in public schools.

And that's the VOA Special English Education Report. Tell us what you think about religion in public schools. You can comment at voaspecialenglish.com. You can also find transcripts and MP3s of our reports. And you can find us on Facebook and YouTube at VOA Learning English.  I'm Christopher Cruise.

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