N.C. Senate to Mull Bill Allowing Schools to Post Ten Commandments

A new provision on a bill to allow schools to post the Ten Commandments would emphasize the words' historical significance rather than their religious meaning.

Civil libertarians are still unhappy with the concept despite the provision, added to an education bill by unanimous voice vote Wednesday in the Senate Education/Higher Education Committee.

It says local schools may display documents or objects that have influenced the U.S. legal or political system, including texts "associated with a religion, such as the words of the Ten Commandments."

The bill says religious documents must be displayed in the same manner as other historical documents and accompanied by a sign that explains First Amendment religious freedoms.

Supporters said the measure could bring the Commandments into schools without violating the separation between church and state.

"The Ten Commandments are not Christian, and are not Orthodox Jewish. It's a historical document that even nonbelievers hold in high regard," said David Hoyle, D-Gaston, who voted for the provision in committee.

But civil liberties advocates called the bill mere political posturing. They say it would make the state vulnerable to legal challenges.

Deborah Ross, executive director and legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, said that schools can already post the Ten Commandments as part of historical exhibits. But this bill, she said, would encourage school districts to use the commandments to promote one religion over another, violating students' religious freedoms.

"Local school boards are still going to do whatever they want," Ross said. "This law is just going to encourage them to do it in inappropriate ways. And that's going to lead to lawsuits."

Ross said her group would challenge the measure if it becomes law.

Sen. Walter Dalton, D-Rutherford, who chairs the Senate Education/Higher Education Committee and sponsored the amendment, said the provision sends a positive message about displaying the Commandments.

"It is a statement at the state level that, provided you do it in a constitutional manner, you can do it," Dalton said.

In June, the House passed a similar Ten Commandments provision as part of a character education bill.

The Senate has not yet voted on that bill, but Dalton said his language was designed to better withstand court scrutiny. The House measure does not mandate posting a sign explaining First Amendment freedoms.

Eighteen states have considered legislation promoting the Ten Commandments in classrooms within the past two years, according to Steve Benen, spokesman for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that tracks the issue.

Benen said three states have passed such measures. Displays of the Commandments have been struck down in two of them, Indiana and Kentucky; South Dakota's display faces legal challenge.

"So far, no federal court has ever upheld the promotion of the Ten Commandments in schools," said Benen.

Other provisions of the bill passed by the Senate committee on Wednesday mandate that the state Department of Public Instruction continue to teach two years of North Carolina history to students.