Sunday, November 28, 1999

Commandments gain momentum across Kentucky

Bill would let schools decide

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        FORT THOMAS — Kim Taylor does not see what harm could come from posting the Ten Commandments in her 7-year-old son Ben's classroom.

        So Mrs. Taylor, of Fort Thomas, favors a proposed Kentucky law that would allow the residents of local school districts to vote on posting the commandments on public school property.

        “I believe in freedom of speech, and I believe in the Ten Commandments,” said Mrs. Taylor, 35, a Roman Catholic. “It seems like they used to be a lot more important to people, but then we started taking them out of schools.

        “Well, we've tried things without the commandments and I think we've strayed a bit as a society,” she said. “Maybe we need to go back to them a little more.”

        The Ten Commandments — the edicts that according to the Bible were handed down by God through Moses — are making a big comeback in Kentucky.

        • School districts and rural county governments are defying a 1980 U.S. Supreme Court ruling by posting the commandments in classrooms and courtrooms.

        • The Kentucky General Assembly will begin considering two bills in January that would allow local school districts to post the commandments.

        • The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed three lawsuits this month on behalf of some local residents saying it is

        unconstitutional for the commandments to be posted in the Pulaski and McCreary county courthouses and in the Harlan County schools.

        • In response to the ACLU's action, state Rep. Wayne Upchurch, R-Monticello, hung a copy of the commandments in the Wayne County Courthouse in south-central Kentucky.

        “We've got to stand up for what is right,” Mr. Upchurch said.

        The move toward displaying the Ten Commandments in Kentucky apparently stems from the U.S. House's passage of a bill in June that would allow the commandments to be posted in classrooms and government buildings.

        The Senate recessed for the year two weeks ago without voting on the bill. But the House action encouraged about a dozen local Kentucky governments and school boards to post the commandments despite the 1980 Supreme Court ruling. That ruling, on a Kentucky case, found posting the commandments in schools amounted to an unconstitutional government promotion of religion.

"We are a Christian nation'
        Earlier this fall, the county fiscal courts in Grant and Boone counties considered posting the commandments in the county courthouses.

        Officials across the state have said the recent school shootings in places such as Littleton, Colo., and Paducah, Ky., and a fear by many over the moral direction of the country, are prompting some of the calls for posting the commandments.

        “We are a Christian nation, and this is a Christian, very religious-based county,” said Grant County Magistrate Kenny Lee Messer, a Republican who suggested the idea. “It's time we stood our ground on those issues, no matter what the downside. It's the Christian thing to do.”

        But both counties backed off until some of the legal questions are answered.

        The statewide organizations that insure county governments and school boards have told members that they won't be covered for any legal costs in a battle over the Ten Com mandments.

        David Friedman, ACLU general counsel for Kentucky, said it's illegal for a government to post the Ten Commandments as a show of support for one particular religion.

        The momentum to display the commandments will come to a head in Frankfort during the legislature's three-month session that begins Jan. 4.

        Two representatives have prepared bills related to the commandments.

        Rep. Sheldon Baugh, R-Russellville, has filed a bill that would let school-based councils decide whether the commandments should be posted. Each school has a council, composed of teachers, parents and the principal.

        A bill from Rep. J.C. “Bo” Ausmus, R-Middlesboro, would allow a public vote on the commandments.

        If a petition were signed by at least one-fourth of the voters in the last general election, the issue would go on the ballot. With a majority vote, schools in that district could post the Ten Commandments.

What's on the books
        Many Northern Kentucky lawmakers say the bills will pass, with the one filed by Mr. Ausmus getting the greater attention and support.

        “I'll vote for it, but I'm not sure how it will hold up in court,” said Rep. Tom McKee, D-Cynthiana, who represents Pendleton County and parts of Campbell County in Northern Kentucky.

        “We open every session in Frankfort with a prayer and pledge to the flag,” he said. “I don't think you can be against the Ten Commandments.”

        “We need to be doing more encouraging Christian principles in schools,” said Rep. Royce Adams, D-Dry Ridge, who said he intends to vote for the bill allowing voters to decide the issue. “Maybe then we wouldn't have so much violence in our schools.”

        Kentucky could, however, already have laws allowing the commandments to be discussed and even displayed in public schools.

        Rep. Jon Draud, R-Crestview Hills, said a state law passed in 1998 allows a discussion of religion, includ ing the Ten Commandments, as long as one particular religious belief is not advocated.

        That same bill prohibits school officials from limiting any student-initiated prayer outside classroom time.

        “I don't know if these proposed laws will pass constitutional muster, but they are good things to try,” said Mr. Draud, the retired superintendent of the Ludlow schools.

        “But we should be thinking at how we can more things like this in schools, and there are some creative things we can do like use that 1998 law,” he said.

        State Sen. Katie Stine, R-Fort Thomas, is a lawyer who has been researching state and federal law in regard to the posting of the commandments. She said a state law passed in 1992 allows the “reading and posting in public schools of texts and documents on American history and heritage.”

        The law goes on to list the documents that can be posted in schools. Included is the Kentucky Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, the national anthem, U.S. Supreme Court decisions and the Congressional Record.

        In her research Mrs. Stine discovered that a copy of the Ten Commandments was read into the Congressional Record — the official transcript of action and speeches in Congress — in February 1983.

        “The Ten Commandments could very well be posted right now,” Mrs. Stine said. “It could be distributed to students and they could study and discuss it. It's clearly constitutional for them to do that.”

        Mrs. Stine said most teachers probably aren't aware of the law, but she intends to bring it up when the legislature begins debating the bills dealing with the commandments.

        “The study of our religious heritage is not an establishment of religion,” Mrs. Stine said. “The courts have said that children do not shed their religious rights at the schoolhouse door. They still have a right to religious expression.”

        The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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