Adams County, Ohio, a rural area about 60 miles east of Cincinnati, has become what one local reporter has referred to as "Ground Zero for patriotism and Christianity."
In late 1997 the Adams County Ministerial Association decided to help improve the moral and religious landscaping of four local high schools by donating large stone monuments displaying the Ten Commandments, one for each school. The school board, without significant fanfare or controversy, said okay shortly thereafter.
That placid atmosphere did not last, however. On Feb. 9, with assistance from the American Civil Liberties Union, local resident Berry Baker filed suit in federal court in Cincinnati challenging the legality of the Commandments display.
To address the controversy, the Adams County School Board announced a hearing at the gymnasium of West Union High School, one of the schools where the Decalogue monuments stand. Prior to the meeting, some board members had expressed skepticism about spending thousands of dollars on a legal challenge. The board's attorney, noting that the county is "poor," told The Cincinnati Enquirer, "You don't want to take money away from the kids, and that's what's going to happen if we have to go forward with this thing."
However, what was designed to be a thoughtful discussion of school board policy more closely resembled a "hallelujah chorus" on behalf of the Ten Commandments.
A standing-room-only crowd of 1,500 celebrated with boisterous singing of "God Bless America" and "Proud to be an American," while many waved miniature American flags -- and that was before the meeting even started.
There was little room for dissenters, and no one who spoke at the event supported church-state separation.
"Let them take their bigotry and foolishness elsewhere" said Danny Bubp, a former Adams County judge who was speaking on behalf of the newly formed Adams County for the Ten Commandments Committee. "Are the Ten Commandments to be made illegal simply because of the ACLU?" His speech was nearly drowned out on occasion by people cheering, applauding and shouting "amen" from the bleachers.
To help persuade the board, the American Family Association, a Religious Right group headquartered in Tupelo, Miss., volunteered to represent the county for free.
Between the AFA offer and the aggressive response from local residents, the board was apparently won over. In March, Adams County filed its response to the federal suit.
The controversy in Adams County is by no means an isolated incident. Fights over the Ten Commandments are becoming increasingly common throughout the United States. Disputes are erupting from the grassroots level all the way to Congress, as the Religious Right and its allies use the Decalogue as a weapon in their political and legal war on church-state separation.
"It appears," observes J. Brent Walker, general counsel to the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, "that the Ten Commandments again are a front-burner policy issue around the country."
Supporters of government-sponsored Ten Commandments displays face a difficult legal terrain. Several federal and state courts have ruled that posting of the Commandments in public schools, courthouses or other government buildings amounts to endorsement of religion and is therefore unconstitutional.
The seminal case is 1980's Stone v. Graham. In Stone, the U.S. Supreme Court held that a Kentucky law requiring public schools to mount privately funded copies of the Ten Commandments in each classroom is unconstitutional. The Constitution's mandate is so clear that the justices did not feel it necessary to even hear oral arguments.
In an unsigned opinion, the court majority said, "The pre-eminent purpose for posting the Ten Commandments on schoolroom walls is plainly religious in nature. The Ten Commandments is undeniably a sacred text in the Jewish and Christian faiths, and no legislative recitation of a supposed secular purpose can blind us to that fact. The Commandments do not confine themselves to arguably secular matters, such as honoring one's parents, killing or murder, adultery, stealing, false witness, and covetousness. Rather, the first part of the Commandments concerns the religious duties of believers: worshipping the Lord God alone, avoiding idolatry, not using the Lord's name in vain, and observing the sabbath day."
The court majority said public school posting served not an educational purpose, but the religious objective of obedience to the Commandments.
"However desirable this might be as a matter of private devotion," the justices continued, "it is not a permissible objective under the Establishment Clause [of the First Amendment]."
A lower federal court conveyed a similar message in 1994. In Cobb County v. Harvey, the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals held that a Ten Commandments display in a courthouse in Cobb County, Ga., signaled government advancement of religion and was therefore in violation of the First Amendment. (The Supreme Court declined to hear the controversy.)
In that case's first stage, U.S. District Judge Marvin Shoob responded to the public hysteria whipped up by the Religious Right.
"To those who have asked the Court by phone calls and letters to 'save the Ten Commandments,' the Court points out that the Ten Commandments are not in peril," Shoob noted. "They may be displayed in every church, synagogue, temple, mosque, home and storefront. They may be displayed on lawns and in corporate board rooms. Where this precious gift cannot, and should not, be displayed as a religious text is on government property. For any erosion of the Bill of Rights...will inevitably produce prejudice and persecution."
Despite the courts' apparent clarity on the legality of government endorsement of the Ten Commandments, controversies have raged on, often fueled by Religious Right activists who seek to undermine public support for church-state separation.
Dennis Pape is a perfect example.
Inspired by Roy Moore, an Alabama circuit court judge who gained national notoriety by refusing to remove a Ten Commandments display from his Etowah County courtroom, Pape has been engaged in a Commandments campaign for over a year and a half.
Pape, the founder and leader of the Wisconsin-Michigan chapter of the American Family Association, has a straightforward goal: get all 72 of Wisconsin's counties to post the Ten Commandments in local courthouses, and then get started on Michigan's 83 counties.
Pape has produced decidedly mixed success. He claims to have gathered tens of thousands of petition signatures in several counties on behalf of Commandments displays. But so far, every county that Pape has appealed to has been reluctant to embroil itself in a constitutional fight it is likely to lose.
"We want God back in our country," Pape told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "We believe that we cannot continue down the path we're on and survive as a nation." As he explains it, his tactics do not raise First Amendment concerns. "When we pledge allegiance to the flag, we mention God. The Ten Commandments is not religion. It's a document given by God to Moses.
"What's happened is the barbarians are ransacking America," Pape added in earlier Journal Sentinel interview. "With the help of God, we could succeed in turning America back....The Founding Fathers set up a Christian nation. They did not set up a Buddhist nation."
Pape's campaign is not unique. George Hall, an auto mechanic in Auburn, Ind., is on an identical mission for courthouses in Indiana and Ohio. The Cleveland Plain Dealer recently compared him to a "modern-day Moses hoping to lead Midwesterners into a promised land of high moral standards." Similarly, June Griffin from Dayton, Tenn., is crusading to get the Commandments posted in courthouses in all of Tennessee's 95 counties.
Civil liberties advocates are concerned.
"State and local governments that are considering endorsing the Ten Commandments have to realize that they are opening a Pandora's box of legal and ethical questions," said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "Any government that singles out one set of religious principles for promotion is making a theological selection forbidden by our Constitution."
Commandments drives at the local level are not limited to courthouses and schools. Lynn pointed to an unsuccessful effort in Charleston, S.C., where the county council attempted to post a Commandments display by its chambers.
Councilman Tim Scott (R) proposed that a Ten Commandments plaque be posted, and his plan quickly received the unanimous support of the board's members. Americans United and the South Carolina ACLU filed suit, and Circuit Court Judge R. Markley Dennis Jr. agreed that the display was inappropriate.
Despite all of the pious posturing in defense of the religious text, there were signs that not all politicians in Charleston were practicing what they preached. The Charleston Post and Courier apparently thought it would be interesting to see if the same council members who wanted to endorse the Commandments could actually name them. Out of the nine council members, none could name all 10 commandments, and two refused to even try. Councilman Barrett Lawrimore snapped, "I don't have time for this pop quiz."
"This is a perfect example of the entire national controversy," said Lynn. "The people who were insisting that the government endorse their religious beliefs should have spent more time studying the content of the Ten Commandments and less time using them as some kind of political football."
Other recent local Ten Commandments controversies include:
- Lumpkin County, Ga.: Americans United contacted the County Commissioner's office in March asking for the removal of a Ten Commandments display from the local courthouse. Days after receiving the letter, County Attorney William M. Brownell, Jr., told Americans United that "after careful consideration" the display would be removed "no later than March 12th." However, on April 2, Brownell explained that the county had changed its mind, and the Commandments would be added to a new "citizenship display," featuring other materials that "reflect the various moral, historical and political influences on the legal system."
- Ogden, Utah: Attorney Brian Barnard, on behalf of the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, has a federal suit pending against a Ten Commandments monument in front of the local municipal building. The same monument is facing a legal challenge from a religious group called Summum, which is suing Ogden for the right to erect a monument espousing its "Seven Aphorisms."
- Blount County, Tenn.: The county commission considered a plan in January to erect a Ten Commandments display in the county's courthouse. Americans United contacted local officials, urging them to reject the proposal. Within a week of AU's correspondence, the commissioners permanently tabled the resolution after a 12-9 vote.
- Asheville, N.C.: Richard Suhre, an atheist, recently lost a round in his federal court challenge to a 67-year-old Ten Commandments display in the Haywood County courthouse. On April 2, District Court Judge Lacy H. Thornburg ruled that the display of the religious doctrines, joined by a statue of "Lady Justice," was legally protected because, "when considered in the totality, only a narrow and shrewish interpretation of the display could lead one to conclude that it is an endorsement of Christian or Jewish faith."
- Manhattan, Kan.: Americans United and the Kansas ACLU have filed suit challenging a Commandments display in front of the city hall. The four-foot-tall granite tablet was originally placed in front of the building in 1958. In November, the city's commissioners voted to turn the monuments sideways so as to make the display less prominent.
As these local battles simmer, legislators in several states have decided that current constitutional law on the Ten Commandments is worth testing, and have introduced bills that would either permit or mandate government posting of the Decalogue.
Legislators in Florida, Indiana, Oklahoma and Mississippi have considered similar bills on the Commandments within the last four months (in some instances, nearly identical pieces of legislation). But nowhere was the effort more aggressive than in Arkansas.
There State Rep. Andrew Morris (R-Springdale) introduced a measure in February that would permit schools and other government buildings to display the Ten Commandments. Despite warnings from civil liberties groups that the measure was patently unconstitutional, the Arkansas House passed it 51-18 on March 11.
The apparent conflict with U.S. Supreme Court precedent did not seem to bother some of the bill's supporters. Rep. Jim Hendren (R-Sulphur Springs) said his job is to interpret the Constitution, not follow the interpretation of federal judges.
"I've got news for you, the courts have been wrong," he observed. Hendren added that rulings such as Stone v. Graham are a "misconstruing of what the Founding Fathers wrote."
Morris insisted that his bill "is largely about the sovereignty of the state of Arkansas" and argued that since his bill merely allowed -- but did not require -- posting the Commandments at government buildings, it would pass constitutional muster.
Cooler heads prevailed in the Arkansas Senate, where several lawmakers voiced concern about a drawn-out, costly lawsuit. After contentious debate, and despite a lobbying push from local Religious Right activists, the legislation died in committee.
State legislatures are not alone in their obsession with the Decalogue. Increasingly in the last couple of years, the U.S. Congress has shown considerable interest in the Ten Commandments as well.
For example, U.S. Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) introduced a resolution in 1997 to put Congress on record in support of displaying the Ten Commandments in the U.S. Capitol, though his effort was ultimately unsuccessful.
Religious Right activists and twin brothers, the Revs. Paul and Rob Schenck, also launched a campaign to post the Commandments in government buildings, including the Capitol. At an April 1998 press conference with Alabama's Roy Moore at their side, the Schencks unveiled their "Ten Commandments Project."
As part of the effort, the Schencks sent Decalogue tablets to then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and President Bill Clinton with a request that the gifts be prominently displayed in the Capitol and the White House.
More recently, in the Senate, a curiously worded resolution lauding the Ten Commandments and urging its display received Senate approval in April 1998.
The non-binding resolution, sponsored by Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), declared that the Ten Commandments "set forth a code of moral conduct, observance of which is acknowledged to promote respect for our system of laws and the good of society...." The measure also urged display of the Decalogue "in the Supreme Court, the Capitol building, the White House, and other government offices and courthouses across the nation...as long as it is consistent with the establishment clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution." [emphasis added]
That last phrase was not part of the original measure. It was only added at the insistence of Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.), who threatened to open up a full debate on the Sessions proposal if the language were not added. Because the measure was part of a larger budget bill, Sessions reluctantly agreed to the change to avoid slowing down the legislative package.
In 1997 Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.) introduced House Concurrent Resolution 31, permitting the display of the Ten Commandments in government buildings. Aderholt acted in the wake of the Judge Moore controversy, and his measure easily passed the House by an overwhelming majority vote of 295 to 125.
The bill was nonbinding, but its political significance surfaced when the Christian Coalition used members' votes on the Adherholt bill on its annual "Congressional Scorecard" and voter guides.
Bolstered by his success in the House and support from the Religious Right, Aderholt tried again the next year. With Gary Bauer, then-president of the Family Research Council, at his side, Aderholt introduced a "Ten Commandments Defense Act" last June.
"The Ten Commandments represent the very cornerstone of the values this nation was built upon, and the basis of our legal system here in America," said Aderholt. "Do not kill or steal, obey your parents, do not commit adultery. Who can argue with these important rules for any functioning society?"
Strangely, Aderholt appeared to suggest that his legislation would actually help church-state separation. "If there were a true separation of church and state, then the state would stop trying to regulate the church," he added. "Only when government stays out of the spiritual affairs of the church, will there be a true separation." Aderholt did not explain how government posting of the Ten Commandments would represent less regulation of the church from the state.
But more ominously, Aderholt's bill had a hidden agenda that went far beyond lauding of the Ten Commandments. The measure, prepared by the Family Research Council and its allies, was intended to undermine the federal courts' authority to rule on religious symbol cases.
Former FRC President Gary Bauer told supporters, "When our courts clearly overreach and violate the fundamental right of the American people to acknowledge the Creator, Congress can and must act to shield that right. The Ten Commandments Defense Act will make it clear that state officials from Alabama to Alaska can permit the posting of the Ten Commandments in public institutions, including courts and schools."
Thus Religious Right groups are using the Ten Commandments as a tool to try to undercut the independence of the judiciary and the separation of powers, as well as the constitutional separation of church and state.
Will they succeed? Aderholt's bill never made it to the House floor last year. However, his office told Church & State that the Alabama Republican is poised to introduce it again. Sources on Capitol Hill say Rep. Charles Canady's Constitution Subcommittee is considering a hearing on the plan.
Church-state separationists are watching closely.
"Many people agree with the principles espoused by the Ten Commandments," Lynn observes. "As a minister, I cherished the Ten Commandments and personally support the message they convey. However, I believe just as strongly that religious faith should not be manipulated by those on a religious/political crusade."