The Course of Reason

Giles County Reaches Unconstitutional Decision Concerning Ten Commandments

June 9, 2011

During a meeting Tuesday, a Virginia school board voted to post the 10 Commandments. A student from the William and Mary Freethought Alliance was in attendance.

On Tuesday I traveled with six fellow freethinkers to Pearisburg in Giles County, Virginia. This area is notorious for its large fundamentalist Christian population which begs the question, what were we doing there? We had decided to attend the local school board meeting to show our support for those, locals and otherwise, standing in opposition of the posting of a display of historical documents, including the Ten Commandments, in public schools. While this is not a new issue in Giles County, it has only recently caught the attention of the general public.

The proposed display is referred to as the “Foundations of American Law and Government” and includes nine documents relevant to our founding, one document explaining the relevancy, and, of course, the Ten Commandments. Why do I believe that the Ten Commandments has no place in this display? Nicole Schrand, a member of the Freethinkers at Virginia Tech, sums it up nicely:

“Last I checked, we were still allowed to disrespect whomever we pleased, have whatever deities or idols (or lack thereof!) we care to have (in whatever order we want), party all day on Sundays, swear however we like, covet anything we damn well want, and, in many states, have sex with anyone willing and of age and sound mind.”

Nicole covers seven of the ten commandments, explaining that they have no place in our law; the remaining three (commandments six, eight, and nine) are relevant to our legal system but can be found in legal codes that predate the Ten Commandments, ones that arguably do have a place in the historical document display (though to be fair, many residents of Giles County have never heard of the Code of Hammurabi).

The display is intended as a happy medium of sorts and a way for Giles County Schools to avoid lawsuit by placing the Ten Commandments in a “secular” context. However the religious intent of the display is painfully obvious: the majority of the supporters present at the meeting wore t-shirts depicting bible verses and the Ten Commandments (one woman wore a shirt that said, “The Ten Commandments in schools- a problem? no, the solution”). The conversation centered entirely around the one document. An individual present at the meeting remarked that these attendees were “hurting themselves” by responding with such fervor and intensity directed solely towards the Ten Commandments, not the display itself.

When we arrived at the meeting, we were the among the first few present; within the half hour the number of attendees spiked to roughly fifty, and we were outnumbered and out-spoken. As things started to get underway, we realized there was an obvious lack of those standing against the display; in fact, we are the only opposition present in the news reports. As a group we were shocked by this absence of opposition.

Prior to the official start of the meeting, a community member led the room in a prayer of which the only noticeable people not participating were myself and the other freethinkers. The prayer was largely concerned with the board making the right decision “for God.” I found myself upset with the prayer, as it was happening in a public school administration office building, but bit my tongue, knowing that it was neither on the agenda nor during the “official” school board meeting. This was followed with a call to order and then the Pledge of Allegiance where some of the attendees clearly raised their voices to enunciate “under God.” I myself did not recite the pledge and received unconcealed looks of disgruntlement from the attendees (looks that I remember well from years of not reciting the pledge in my public schools).

Then the school board opened the floor to persons from the public for comments, of whom the first to speak was Cory Brunson, a freethinker from Virginia Tech. Cory represented the group of us present as well as the organization Freethinkers at Virginia Tech. He cited the Supreme Court case Lemon v. Kurtzman and discussed the “Lemon test,” urging the school board members to question the true religious intent behind the display. Cory prompted the board to understand that they were representing all of Virginia in their decision.

The only other person to speak prior to the vote was community member Charlie Henderson who expressed that he was willing to “take on the responsibility for this display as the common man” and “provide physical, spiritual, and financial resources.” Henderson commented that “this is the right thing to do,” which prompted a chorus of amens and hallelujahs from the attendees and a standing ovation. Cue my discomfort. The board personally thanked him for all that he has done for Giles County Schools and the community.

In a quick and formal manner, the board voted 3-2 to approve the display. This result was accompanied with another chorus of amens and hallelujahs. Following the vote, the two board members who voted against the display, Drema McMahon and J. Lewis Webb, Jr., explained their decisions. McMahon cited financial reasons for why she voted against the measure saying, “I love my country and these documents, but we do not have the money to take this to the Supreme Court.” After getting the chance to speak with her personally she remarked that she is a Christian woman who believes “this is a victory.” McMahon's vote against the display is a classic case of the right choice for the wrong reasons; she made it explicit that she had no issue with posting the Ten Commandments in public schools. I found her comments to serve little more purpose than covering her own ass.

Webb said in his statement that “this issue violates our Constitution, as it has been overturned many times by the Supreme Court.” He also stated that “people are asking schools to do more and more to raise their children” including things that should be the responsibility of the church and the family. I respect and commend Webb for standing his ground on his choice and recognizing the constitutional violation in the board's decision. None of the three members who voted in favor of the display made comments or justified their motivations behind the vote.

Community member Sammie Marshall, who led the prayer before the meeting, spoke after the school board announced a break in the meeting. Marshall thanked the board for its decision and said, “we will fight this, God will prevail. This is not over by a long shot- we will not stop until the Ten Commandments are in every school in this country.” I was upset with the cult-like tone of Marshall's statement and the chorus of amens that followed.

After the meeting was over I had the opportunity to talk with a community member, one of the ones not wearing a Ten Commandments shirt, who had stayed silent throughout the meeting and who has chosen to remain anonymous. This community member commended the freethinkers for our courage and told me that “not all Christians in Giles County think this is the best Christian decision” and that “it's not what's best for the kids.” This individual said that the majority of the attendees at the meeting represented one church, Riverview Baptist, and were the “outspoken minority, not the silent majority, of Christians in Giles County.”

While the information about the “silent majority” does seem encouraging, it makes me concerned about the environment of Giles County for current and future generations. As someone who grew up in southwest Virginia, I understand the way religion seeps into every aspect of communities here and I understand how that can instill fear in those, even Christians, who believe in the separation of church and state. Fear is, in my opinion, what is obviously at work in Giles County. Why else would the only person representing the “silent majority” choose to remain anonymous? Why would McMahon and Webb, who made the constitutional decision, feel compelled to explain themselves when the other board members did not? Why were we, a group of students with no direct association to Giles County, the only outspoken opposition? I have many more questions about and am deeply troubled by the state of Giles County as it stands.

Regardless, Kent Willis, the ACLU legal director, and Patrick Elliott, staff attorney for the FFRF, were contacted and have both made statements that they plan to move forward with legal action, representing two families in Giles County (who at this time, of course, wish to remain anonymous). The costs for this are estimated at $300,000.


About the Author: CFI On Campus

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Center for Inquiry On Campus promotes and defends reason, science, and freedom of inquiry in education. We are committed to the enhancement of freethought, skepticism, secularism, humanism, philosophical naturalism, rationalism, and atheism on college and high school campuses throughout North America and around the world.


#1 Sabrina (Guest) on Thursday June 09, 2011 at 9:06am

Schools are already at a lack of founding, I cant believe $300,000 dollars is going into something that has nothing to do with children's education. The ten commandments are something that should be taught to children in church, and in their own homes by their parents, Not in schools. Not to mention its unconstitutional. that alone should keep them from being up.




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