The Ten Commandments Crusade

By Benen, Steve | Church & State, May 1999 | Go to article overview

The Ten Commandments Crusade


Benen, Steve, Church & State


How the Religious Right Is Using The Ten Commandments To Win Votes. Attack The Federal Courts And Undercut Church-State Separation

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. …

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