In a split decision, the Giles County school board voted to put the Ten Commandments back up in county schools. But is that decision legal? Can the Ten Commandments- even in a historical display- hang in public schools?
The ACLU and Freedom from Religion Foundation believe the decision is unconstitutional and have said they will sue if the Ten Commandments are put back in school.
Liberty Counsel said the courts have upheld the Ten Commandments in other school districts and believe the decision is constitutional. Liberty Counsel will represent the Giles Co. school board if those lawsuits are filed.
A First Amendment expert weighed in on the debate. He says the courts could go either way, which would make for an interesting legal battle, if those lawsuits actually happen.
“The government can neither inhibit nor advance religion,” said First Amendment expert Wat Hopkins.
Hopkins is a communications professor at Virginia Tech. He's been watching the Giles County Ten Commandments issue with interest.
“I've been watching courts a long time and one of the things I've learned is, you never know,” said Hopkins.
The Ten Commandments alone cannot be displayed in public schools, but the Giles Co. school board voted to include the Commandments with nine other documents, in a larger, historical display.
“What Giles Co was doing before was violating the constitution, and what’s happening now is an effort to skirt the law,” said Hopkins.
Hopkins says it’s not the display itself that's the issue.
“The Ten Commandments, in addition to being a religious document, clearly is a legal document,” he said.
The historical display itself has been ruled constitutional, but what could cause legal problems is the school board's intent in hanging the new display.
“They went back up, they came back down, and now we’re going to cloak this particulate document in the garb of history,” said Hopkins. “And I suspect the court will say, ‘if this is what your goal was, why didn't you do it to begin with?’”
Liberty Counsel, which will represent the school board if a lawsuit is filed, agrees that the intent and objectivity of the display are important. But Liberty Counsel says the display is historical and educational-not religious.
The 4th Circuit Court in Virginia is one of the most conservative in the country. So while, Hopkins' doesn't buy the argument, the court, just might.
“This might meet constitutional muster in a particular court, but I don’t think it will,” Hopkins said.
No lawsuits have been filed yet.
The ACLU executive director said he’s still waiting to see the final resolution passed by the school board before and legal proceedings begin. They have been preparing for a lawsuit and are still planning to litigate, he said.
No exact time line for when any lawsuits could be filed has been set.