Sandra Day O’Conner

History Bothers ACLU, Atheists, But Not Giles Country School Board

Tuesday, the Giles County School Board voted to display the Ten Commandments in its schools, along with several other historical documents, such as the Declaration of Independence (see Norfolk Virginian-Pilot). This decision came despite threats from the self-styled defender of freedom ACLU and the atheist Freedom from Religion Coalition which, among other activities, tried to stop the issuance of the Mother Teresa stamp last year (see ). Somehow, these two groups reason, displays of these historical documents are "unconstitutional." Now, they may file suit to stop the displays.

Unfortunately, the legal precedent for the display of historical documents is anything but clear. In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court, on the same day in 2005, issued two separate opinions on the display of the Ten Commandments. One it deemed constitutional, the other not. In an effort to "split the baby," the court showed that, at least in its opinion, motives for displaying historical documents are more important than the words on the documents.

The primary difference between the two cases (Van Orden v. Perry and McCreary County, Kentucky, et al. v. ACLU), according to Justice Steven Breyer, the swing vote in each decision, was that the Kentucky displays stemmed from a governmental effort "substantially to promote religion," while the other (in Texas) served a "mixed but primarily non-religious purpose."

To come to that conclusion the justices had to determine the motives of those involved in the displays, something that many legal analysts argue is difficult to pin down. Justice Sandra Day O’Conner, who voted against the displays in both cases, is no longer on the court.

When the display of the Ten Commandments in Giles County was initially removed, both students at the schools and droves of citizens protested. Testimony at school board meetings overwhelmingly supported reposting them. Officials determined that it would be constitutional if it was included with other documents of historical significance to the United States.

Of course, including other historical documents is likely to provide little comfort to those bent on expunging our history — and the public square — of any hint of Christianity. It is very clear, from this case to the many other cases in federal court dealing with prayer at public meetings and school graduations, to the use of public facilities by religious groups, that a handful of secularists have absolutely no interest in historical accuracy or any reference to religious heritage. As one federal court said, the biggest threat may be that children in schools might actually read the Ten Commandments and obey them.

Recently, a student at a public school in Texas ignored a federal judge and led her cheering classmates in prayer at their graduation (a subsequent decision by a higher court overturned the judge's decision). Now, Giles County has voted to thumb its nose at the ACLU. Here's hoping that we've reached a point where the citizens of our nation have decided that the ACLU doesn't speak for everyone.