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Ten Commandments wrangling continues to mount in Ky.; issue also raised in Ind.

LONDON, Ky. (BP)–The state whose 1978 law mandating Ten Commandments classroom displays was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court is increasingly the scene of a renewed legal battle over the historic document.

No hearing dates are set, but filings are proceeding in three separate lawsuits filed by the American Civil Liberties Union in U.S. District Court Nov. 18. The suits challenge public displays of the Ten Commandments in the McCreary and Pulaski county courthouses and Harlan County schools.

Just to the north, a southern Indiana school board is facing the threat of an ACLU suit over student guidelines it adopted as an alternative to a Ten Commandments display.

The Scott County, Ind., guidelines were to be posted when classes resumed Jan. 3, but the move has been postponed. Officials plan to meet later that week with a representative from the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), which has agreed to defend the school board.

Responding to a complaint from a citizen in Scottsburg, Ind., the ACLU had sent a letter threatening a lawsuit to prevent the school board’s 11 “precepts” from being posted. It objected to the rules as paralleling the Ten Commandments, said Scott County Superintendent Robert Hooker.

The first one, “Trust in God,” is a religious edict, said Kenneth Falk, legal director of the ACLU’s Indiana affiliate. But, he added, the organization objects to the document as a whole.

“To those who believe in the Ten Commandments, it’s a whole and we’re looking at the precepts as a whole,” Falk said. “If they remove the first and post the others, what will we do? I don’t know.”

Despite arguments in the two states over the Ten Commandments, the attorney representing three southeastern Kentucky counties argues that the Lord’s influence in the nation’s founding is clearly a part of history.

“I’m not trying to make new law,” said Ronald Ray of Crestwood, Ky. “I’m just trying to tell the truth. I love this country and I hate the fact that they lie about the founding fathers and say they were all deists. It’s not true.”

A graduate of the University of Louisville law school, in his youth Ray attended St. Matthews Baptist Church in Louisville. In addition to his Christian beliefs, he said an incentive for taking the cases comes from a common bond with the county judge executives named in two of the suits. Darryl Beshear of Pulaski County and Jimmie Green of McCreary County are Vietnam War-era veterans, having served in the Army and Air Force respectively. Ray served in the Marines during those years.

The suburban Louisville attorney plans a vigorous defense. He has formed the “Ten Commandments Project” to oppose the ACLU’s attack on public Ten Commandments displays. His co-counsel, Ted Amshoff, Jr., of Louisville, was involved in defending the Ten Commandments in the Stone v. Graham case that led to the 5-4 ruling overturning Kentucky’s law in 1980.

The Ten Commandments were posted last summer in McCreary and Pulaski’s county courthouses. Since the lawsuit filings, both governments have added displays of historic documents with references to God. They are as old as the Mayflower Compact and as recent as a congressional declaration that 1983 was the “Year of the Bible.”

Ray argues that the Constitution permits such broad-based displays, filing court papers recently contending that the additional historical documents correct any constitutional problems. He also points to a 1992 Kentucky law forbidding censorship of historical documents.

Referring to a line from the Mayflower Compact saying the signers were forming “a body politic to advance the Christian faith,” Ray asked, “Are we to take that out of history books because of religious references? It’s absurd to think the Mayflower Compact can’t be on a courthouse wall. We need to stop the censorship of our history.”

However, one of the plaintiffs in the cases who is a Southern Baptist called the display an endorsement of religion. Louanne Walker told the Louisville Courier-Journal newspaper that the additional documents don’t change the intent behind the display.

“I’m just a firm believer in separation of church and state,” she said. “I’m not against the Ten Commandments, but I did feel that hanging them there is against the Constitution.”

The ACLU attorney handling the case, David Friedman of Louisville, told the newspaper that a court will have to evaluate the changes to decide whether the new display is constitutional.

“One of the legal tasks is to look at the purpose of what government does,” Friedman said. “If the purpose was to favor religion or disfavor religion, then it’s out. If the purpose was to be neutral on religion, then it’s in.”

(Several attempts to reach Friedman for additional comment were unsuccessful.)

Ironically, Scott County’s school board adopted its “Common Precepts” to avoid legal wrangling. Besides the Indiana board’s advice to trust in God, its principles to promote virtue and civility in schools 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.

Hooker, who took office as Scott County school superintendent in October, said the board voted to post the Ten Commandments a couple months before he arrived. Instead, he proposed adopting the precepts. They were an attempt to write a secular version of how people ought to act in an educational setting, he said.

“This was a layman’s attempt to avoid controversy, and instead it put us in the middle of it,” Hooker said. “Based on the advice we get, the board has to make a decision on which way to go.”

Despite the ACLU’s objections, Hooker said the guidelines don’t follow the Ten Commandments; rather, they deal primarily with relationships to other people.

Some of the precepts were taken from “Good Citizen Instruction,” adopted by the state legislature. The law mandates school curriculum on such subjects as honesty, morals, safety, courtesy and respect for parents, Hooker said.

The first guideline about trusting in God came from such national cornerstones as the Bill of Rights, Pledge of Allegiance, National Anthem and U.S. currency, he added.

“I assume civil libertarians get excited about the separation of church and state, but they forget about free exercise of religion,” the superintendent said. “It’s in our state law, so who knows what’s going to happen?”

Ray believes a desire to erase all mentions of God from the public domain are behind the court challenges.

“The ACLU has gone too far,” the attorney said. “The church has been too quiet while people like the ACLU try to obliterate our Christian history. It’s been removed from public life the past 35 years, and I think it’s good to bring it back.”

    About the Author

  • Ken Walker