NC school board considers displaying Ten Commandments near school entrances

The administration building for Cleveland County Schools, Shelby, N.C.
The administration building for Cleveland County Schools, Shelby, N.C. | Google Maps

A North Carolina school board is exploring the possibility of putting Ten Commandments displays near the entrances at each of its school buildings, a possibility that has upset a secular legal group.

The Cleveland County School Board first discussed the idea at its Dec. 14 board meeting, drawing support and criticism in the last week from opposing national First Amendment legal groups. 

During the December meeting, board member Ron Humphries "made a motion to prepare, or have prepared, a policy requiring the display of the Ten Commandments ... in a prominent place at or near the main entrance of all of our campuses." 

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In a statement to The Christian Post Thursday, Cleveland County School Board Chair Robert Queen said that the question surrounding the “display of the Ten Commandments has been referred to our policy committee for study” per the board’s vote in December. 

There is no deadline for the committee to report back to the board about the matter, Queen added. 

“Right now, we are more focused on educating our students during a pandemic,” he explained. 

Supporters of the measure, including Humphries, contend that displays of the Ten Commandments on school grounds are permitted by North Carolina law, as long as they are accompanied by other historical displays.

Another board member, Dena Green, expressed concern that posting the Ten Commandments at the schools would lead to "a lot of backlash" as well as "attorneys and legal fees." 

In response to that concern, Humphries contended that the school district "can't be sued for following the law of the state of North Carolina." 

On Jan. 7, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Wisconsin-based legal group that advocates for a strict separation of church and state, sent a letter to Cleveland County School District attorney Colin Shive. 

In the letter, FFRF threatened legal action against the school district if the push to erect the Ten Commandments displays at its schools was not scrapped. The organization pushed back on Humphries' argument that the district can’t be sued for following state law.

"The District can be sued for violating the Establishment Clause [of the First Amendment] even if it is following North Carolina law,” wrote FFRF Staff Attorney Christopher Line. “It would be a flagrant violation of the Establishment Clause for the Board to require all of its schools to display the Ten Commandments."

Furthermore, Line argued that “no court” has upheld the display of the Ten Commandments at a public school even in cases when the Ten Commandments were included with other historical displays. 

"Although the Supreme Court allowed a long-standing Ten Commandments monument on government property in one unique context, the Court made clear that such displays are unconstitutional,” Line asserted. 

The First Liberty Institute, which describes itself as "the nation's largest law firm dedicated exclusively to defending and restoring religious liberty for all Americans," sent its own letter to the school district on Wednesday explaining why the Ten Commandments displays would not violate the Constitution.

The legal nonprofit argued that if the school board rejects the Ten Commandments displays because of their religious content, the board could be engaging in “overt hostility toward religion” that the U.S. Supreme Court has deemed “unnecessary and Constitutionally infirm.”

In a statement to CP, First Liberty Special Counsel for Litigation and Communications Jeremy Dys contended that "North Carolina law recognizes that The Ten Commandments, like the Magna Carta and Mayflower Compact, have much to instruct students about the development of the rule of law in this country."

"The law, state Constitution and U.S. Supreme Court precedent, ensure that their display is perfectly legal and constitutional,” Dys said. “The Cleveland school board should ignore the plea of secular activists who would rather cancel this part of our history just because it contains religious language — at exactly the moment we need to understand the rule of law the most."

Dys cited the 2019 Supreme Court decision in American Legion v. American Humanist Association as proof that Ten Commandments displays on school property would not violate the Establishment Clause of the Constitution.

"Rather than give credence to a heckler's veto that questions the presence of 'religiously expressive monuments, symbols, and practices' displayed in public, the U.S. Supreme Court explained that such long-standing and historic displays bear a strong presumption of constitutionality,” Dys stated.

He added that the court found that religious displays "can become embedded features of a community's landscape and identity" which "a community can come to value ... without necessarily embracing their religious roots.”

Dys also pushed back on the idea that the court's findings in American Legion only apply to existing displays.

"No less protection is offered by the Constitution for new displays that are in keeping with the history and tradition of our country. It is well-settled that simply having religious content or promoting a message consistent with a religious doctrine does not violate the Establishment Clause,” he added. 

"The schools within the Board's purview are well-equipped to the challenge of educating their audience. Rather than dismiss these historic documents from public view, canceling them due only to their religious content, the Board should remain committed to the principles of religious pluralism and freedom made possible by the very documents now under consideration."

FFRF, which often pressures school districts and government entities to end any perceived endorsement of religion, argues that any person who sees the Ten Commandments display will think that the religious document is “being endorsed by the school.” 

Line argued in his letter that the district’s promotion of the Bible and religion over non-religion “impermissibly turns any non-Christian or non-believing student, parent or staff member into an outsider." 

"Schoolchildren already feel significant pressure to conform to their peers,” Line stressed. “They must not be subjected to similar pressure from their school, especially on religious questions."

FFRF co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor said in a statement that public school districts “have no business injecting religion into their schools” or “interfering with the rights of conscience of students and their parents.”

"Students in our public schools are free to have any god they like, as many gods as they like — or none at all! In America, we live under the First Amendment, not the First Commandment,” she asserted. 

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