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Indiana board drops ‘God’ from moral precepts in school buildings

SCOTTSBURG, Ind. (BP)–A southern Indiana school board has dropped a reference to God from a list of precepts promoting good student conduct. But a vote to change the ground-breaking guidelines may not avoid a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union.

The Scott County, Ind., District 2 board voted Jan. 11 to remove the first precept, which read, “Trust in God.” The remaining 10 have been posted in lobbies and other areas of each of the county’s seven schools.

Printed on light gold 11-by-14 inch paper, the guidelines have also been changed from their original form to include a picture of a penny beside each point. The name now reads, “Common Cents Precepts to Promote a Virtuous and Civil School Authority.”

The added of the penny is upsetting the ACLU. Ken Falk, legal director for Indiana’s affiliate of the national organization, is withholding a decision about a lawsuit until he talks to his client.

“I haven’t seen the [guidelines], so I don’t know,” Falk said. “Obviously, the face of a penny with Lincoln has ‘In God We Trust’ on it, so I don’t know if anything has really been changed.

“I think the intent here is to go as close to the line as they can go,” Falk said of the school board’s action. “It’s the only case of its kind as far as I know.”

The school board decided to drop “Trust in God” after meeting Jan. 6 with the American Center for Law and Justice’s chief counsel, John Stepanovich, who advised the compromise would give officials a more legally defensible case if a lawsuit is filed.

Stepanovich, of Virginia Beach, Va., told Baptist Press the school board hadn’t “caved in,” but taken a wise approach. Retaining “Trust in God” could have caused legal problems with the First Amendment clause prohibiting government endorsement of religion, he said.

“They wanted to avoid costly litigation to the taxpayers, but still pass good conduct guidelines,” he said. “It was a pragmatic approach by the school board to do whatever they can to teach students to live in a virtuous environment.”

As for Falk’s objection to the penny, Stepanovich said three federal circuit courts have upheld “In God We Trust” as the national motto.

In addition, Scott County’s guidelines line up with a mandate from the Indiana legislature to teach students morality, he said.

Superintendent Robert Hooker said the board simply wants to help students learn morals and virtues. After reviewing their options, they felt this was the best way to teach principles without violating the law, he said.

The penny was included as a form of positive association, the superintendent said. The 16th president is generally well thought of, and every time a student sees a penny they may think of one of the virtues, Hooker explained.

“We feel we properly exercised discretion afforded us by law to teach our students,” he said, adding that the standards come directly from a list of 13 guidelines in state law requiring moral instruction. Among them are “Respect authority,” “Honor your parents and family members,” “Speak kindly to and about others” and “Save sex for marriage.”

“If he [the ACLU’s Falk] and his client still want to do something, let us know what they’re going to do, but they’re up,” Hooker said of the precepts as posted. “Because of the threat of a lawsuit, we’re trying to be very careful.”

Passed last October, the resolution to post the precepts included two other steps. One was to purchase additional instructional materials on morality; the other, to develop an educational display of the Ten Commandments and other historical documents.

The board placed William Bennett’s “Book of Virtues” in middle and high school libraries, and a children’s version in four elementary schools, the superintendent said. The display is still in the planning stage.

The Indiana county isn’t the only school board involved in disputes related to the Ten Commandments. Stepanovich said the American Center for Law and Justice is getting calls weekly from counties which have been sued or threatened with a legal challenge.

He currently is defending the Adams County, Ohio, school board, which was sued by the ACLU for erecting granite monuments with the Ten Commandments outside four high schools last year. A couple of Kentucky school boards also have contacted his office about potential lawsuits.

The attorney said cases are popping up nationwide because school board representatives are drawing the line. Citizens concerned about problems with morality are taking action, Stepanovich said.

“They believe the Ten Commandments are an important part of teaching children morals and values,” he said. “They have formed the basis for many of our laws and the basis of government in this country and others.”

A spokesperson for a national organization advocating postings of the Mosaic law said the challenge to Indiana’s precepts is another example of America’s “theophobia” — a fear of publicly mentioning God.

“This is another example of the ACLU trying to strip the cultural horizon of any semblance of religious expression,” said Janet Parshall of the Family Research Council based in Washington, D.C.

“While we’re at it, we better throw away the Constitution of the United States, which says we have been endowed by our Creator, from whom we get our inalienable rights.”

Ten Commandments postings are popular because names like Jonesboro, Paducah, Conyers and Columbine have become too familiar in the public’s consciousness, Parshall said.

When people see tapes of one of the Columbine student killers saying, “I hope I kill 250 of you,” they realize there is problem in the heart that won’t be solved by metal detectors, gun control, or zero tolerance measures to curb violence, Parshall said.

“The Ten Commandments remind kids once again … that there is a transcendent truth,” she said. “There’s a moral code of behavior, there’s a right and wrong way to behave and there are consequences for right and wrong choices.”

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  • Ken Walker