HARLAN COUNTY, Ky. – The whirlwind political controversy over church and state has touched down in Harlan County, Ky., which is fighting to keep the Ten Commandments hanging in its schools.
"We don't want to infringe on anybody," Harlan County School Board attorney Johnnie Turner said. "We don't want to make you believe any specific religion but we want our fundamental rights back."
The American Civil Liberties Union has sued the county to bar religious expression from the public schools here in the heart of Appalachian coal country, saying it’s a clear violation of church and state.
Besides the Ten Commandments that adorn school walls, the ACLU has also taken issue with a "quiet room" at Cumberland High School, a former janitor’s closet that was converted into a sanctuary with pews and a pulpit where students can pray or meditate. And though the school did remove a picture with a biblical reference from the room after the ACLU complained, some students still refer to it as a chapel. David Friedman, of the ACLU of Kentucky, said that no matter how the school tries to portray it, the room has an unacceptable bias toward religion.
All in all, in fact, the schools have stepped over the line between allowing freedom of religion to forcing one's faith on others, Friedman said.
"What you've got is a faction of the population that wants to impose its religious preferences through the government," he said.
"If you turned the tables and had government express religion other than the viewpoints they hold, I'd bet they'd be asking the ACLU for representation."
Students like Michael Kilburn see it as outsiders telling locals what they can and can’t say or do in their own institutions.
"It's our community," he said. "We should be able to have what we want to have."
Turner argued that the Ten Commandments are actually historical documents, part of the fabric of what made Harlan County what it is today.
"Taking those documents down is taking down of history and this whole nation should be aware of that," he said.
And he’s not alone in his defense of the 10 core laws legend says Moses brought down from his summit with God. The state of Kentucky itself is fighting to protect the Ten Commandments. At least 14 other states have also introduced or approved legislation that would keep them in the schools.
But Friedman said that was a bad idea, and he certainly wasn’t buying Turner’s claims.
"To suggest that the Ten Commandments is on par with those political and patriotic documents is both bad law and bad history," he said.