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School board’s moral ‘precepts’ sidestep challenge from ACLU

SCOTTSBURG, Ind. (BP)–A ground-breaking set of good conduct guidelines adopted by a southern Indiana school system will not be challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Scott County, Ind., School District 2’s “Common ‘Cents’ Precepts to Promote a Virtuous and Civil School Community” were posted in seven schools in mid-January. The 10 precepts were posted after the school board dropped one that read, “Trust in God.”

Ken Falk, legal director of the ACLU’s Indiana affiliate, said his client decided not to take the case to court. In December, the civil liberties organization had notified the board of its intent to sue if the list was posted with the “Trust in God” guideline.

“If the primary reference to God was removed, then we decided not to pursue it,” Falk said.

Rob Hooker, superintendent of Scott County schools, said he didn’t know whether the board had dodged a legal bullet. Its only desire was to post legally defensible guidelines for student conduct, he said.

“The issue is still what goes up on our walls and its purpose,” said Hooker, who became the superintendent last fall after serving as assistant superintendent in a neighboring county. “We’re still working on our educational display of the Ten Commandments.”

The rural county’s school board voted last fall to post the commandments, but Hooker suggested the precepts as an alternative. A framed copy of the precepts hangs in the board’s office. Framed copies will be supplied for every principal’s office, hallway and school lobby, he said.

Laminated copies will be supplied for every classroom, the superintendent added.

The precepts include:

— Respect authority.

— Honor your parents and family members.

— Treat your classmates, teachers, and school staff with respect.

— Speak kindly to and about others.

— Resolve conflicts without using violence.

— Tell the truth.

— Save sex for marriage.

— Stay drug and alcohol free.

— Leave other people’s property alone.

— Avoid being jealous of what others have.

In addition to the precepts, the board voted to purchase additional materials on morality for school libraries and to establish an educational/historical display that includes the Ten Commandments.

A bill to permit public postings of the commandments on state-owned property, as long as they are part of an educational display, passed by a wide margin Jan. 25 in the Indiana Senate. It is awaiting action in the state’s House of Representatives.

Hooker doesn’t know if the state legislation will have an impact on Scott County’s proposal to also post the Mosaic law. He said the board is moving ahead with its plans, regardless.

“I believe the ACLU and others will file to block it,” he said. “There may still be a battle out there but we’re proceeding with our own resolution.”

While Falk said the state legislation appears constitutional on its face, he predicted it will still create a flurry of legal challenges.

“It depends on what the display is and what’s in it,” the ACLU official said. “I think it will spur a massive amount of litigation as these displays go up. A historical display in a school setting will be much more questionable than in a courthouse.

“I’ve seen displays where the display consisted of the Ten Commandments and one or two other documents. That kind of thing isn’t going to pass muster.”

The battle in Indiana is only one of a host of Ten Commandments cases being contested in state legislatures and other venues across the nation. Among others that have appeared in recent press reports:

— Georgia legislator Charles Poag has filed a bill that would make displays of the Ten Commandments a requirement in every public school classroom. Failure to meet the condition would deny state education funds to the schools.

The Democrat told the Chattanooga Times & Free Press, “The attorneys who drew it up wanted to do it that way. They may say it’s illegal in court, but we’ll still try it.”

Albert Dreisbach, an Episcopal priest in Atlanta, told the paper, “I’m all in favor of the Ten Commandments. But the place for this is not in the schools. This is the job of the churches, synagogues and mosques of our land, to teach our children how to live moral lives.”

— The Colorado senate’s education committee will vote Feb. 2 on a bill that would require schools to post the Ten commandments and offer students a daily moment of silent reflection, according to a Jan. 31 report in Conservative News Service.

“Since Columbine, we’re dealing with a level of concern that value-free education is failing, and in some cases failing fatally,” Sen. John Andrews of Golden, the sponsor of the bill, told CNS in a reference to the school shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton in which 13 students were killed before two student gunmen took their own lives.

Despite ACLU challenges, Andrews said he believes the bill will stand up in court because it plays up the Ten Commandments’ historical significance.

— A bill has been introduced in the Kentucky legislature to allow schools to post the Ten Commandments, provided the display is approved in a local referendum and is part of a program in which the commandments are taught in the context of other moral and legal guidelines.

The ACLU, meanwhile, has filed suits challenging postings of the Ten Commandments in two county courthouses and one county school district.

Kentucky is the state whose 1978 law mandating Ten Commandments classroom displays was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1980.

— In South Dakota, the Senate State Affairs Committee approved legislation during the week of Jan. 24 to give local officials the authority to decide if the Ten Commandments can be posted in schools, according a report in Culture Facts, published by the Family Research Council, while a bill was filed in the Oklahoma legislature to allow copies of the Ten Commandments to be posted in public buildings and schools in that state.

— Residents of Harrisburg, Ill., are supporting a recent decision by the school board to post the Ten Commandments in the principal’s office at four area high schools. The commandments are posted next to the Bill of Rights and the Magna Carta as part of a historical display.

Nearly a third of the 9,000 residents in the southern Illinois town signed a petition supporting the board, according to a report on Crosswalk.com, a Christian Internet site. But the ACLU and one school board member want the decision reversed, saying the postings represent a “coercive” situation.

(BP) photo of the 10 ‘Precepts’ posted in the BP Photo Library. Photo title: COMMON ‘CENTS’ PRECEPTS.

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  • Ken Walker