Ten Commandments Battles Erupt in State Legislatures

Church & State, March 2000 | Go to article overview
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Ten Commandments Battles Erupt in State Legislatures


At least 11 state legislatures are grappling with proposals to promote posting of the Ten Commandments in public schools and other government buildings.

In Indiana, both chambers of the state legislature have approved legislation that would allow the posting of the Ten Commandments in all government buildings, including public schools, provided they are part of a larger display that also includes other "historic documents." The measure passed the state Senate on a vote of 38-9 Jan. 25 and cleared the House 91 to 7 Feb. 7. It is headed to Gov. Frank O'Bannon (D), who has indicated he will sign it into law.

Indiana senators debated the measure for about an hour. Bill sponsor, Sen. Kent Adams, a Republican from Bremen, asserted that, "America has become the greatest nation on the face of the earth today because children from generation to generation have been taught about our heritage. The Ten Commandments are part of that heritage."

But Sen. Anita Bowser, a Democrat from Michigan City, argued against the bill. "It is unconstitutional," she said, "and so will be declared by the Supreme Court of the United States." Bowser also charged that most of the senators know the bill violates the First Amendment, but said, "They're so worried about the election coming up they'll prostitute their beliefs for a vote."

A similar measure has cleared the South Dakota Senate. S.B. 54 would permit public schools to put up the Ten Commandments and other religious documents as long as the action is for an "educational" purpose. It passed the state senate unanimously on Jan. 24.

Originally the bill, introduced by Sen. Jim Lawler, an Aberdeen Democrat, was limited to the Ten Commandments. Lawler said he believes children should be taught the difference between right and wrong and argued that there have been too many violent acts in schools.

Lawler also said he was unconcerned about the bill sparking a lawsuit, saying that even if defending the measure cost $350,000, that would only be 50 cents per state resident. "It's not a big price to pay to get our children back," he said.

The measure is pending in the South Dakota House of Representatives.

In Colorado a bill that would have required every public school in the state to post the Ten Commandments in "the main entryway" appears to be dead. The Senate bill went so far as to include specific wording for the commandments. It also required public schools to open each day with a "period of quiet reflection for not more than sixty seconds" and permitted "student-initiated voluntary prayers at schools or school-related events that are nonsectarian and non-proselytizing in nature."

The measure was introduced by Sen. John Andrews, an Englewood Republican. During the debate, Andrews insisted that his bill is constitutional because it is "educational and civic" and not meant to be religious.

The measure died Feb. 14 when the Senate voted 18-17 to reject a greatly watered-down version of Andrews bill that would have only recommended that public schools begin each day with a moment of silence.

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