Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Giles County's Unconstitutional Ten Commandments Decision

I know everyone thought I'd been raptured, since I've been terribly neglectful of this blog for the last month, but I promise, I'm still here, and still in Blacksburg, even.

In fact, I'm still meeting up with the Freethinkers, and we are doing epic things this summer! Yesterday's epic adventure was our trip out to the Giles County School Board Meeting to show our support for keeping the “historical documents” display – the one that includes the Ten Commandments – out of public schools. This has apparently been an issue since at least 2004, and probably much longer.

Just to be clear, in my personal opinion, the Ten Commandments has no place in a display of historical documents that were instrumental in the formation of American law. In fact, 70% of the Ten Commandments aren't addressed at all in American law codes. 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 (at any rate, there's no federal law governing adultery); only murder, theft, and bearing false witness are illegal on a federal level. Beyond that, I think I can go out on a limb and say that most – if not all – legal codes have always and still do include admonishments against murder, theft, and lying to get other people in trouble and/or cover your own ass. There is no real evidence or support for the claim that the Ten Commandments are historically significant in the codification of United States law.

On a related note, I'd like to put forth that if they wanted to put up something really old that influenced United States legal tradition (and probably legal traditions in much of the modern world), they need look no further than the Code of Hammurabi. It is the oldest recorded legal code ever discovered, after all, and it even covers murder, theft, and false witness.

So why do they want it up there? Religion, of course. Despite the (sad and transparent) excuse that the display was “secular,” the vast majority of supporters of the display supported it for religious purposes. Among most of the supporters, there was no pretense that they supported it on secular grounds. Bible verses and Ten Commandments tablets at crosses were everywhere. It was very clear that the support for the display was based almost entirely in religious doctrine. At this point, I think it will be almost impossible for anyone to argue that this display passes the Lemon Test.

Quite frankly, when the eight of us got there, we felt a little outnumbered. Or a lot outnumbered. In fact, none of the conversations we heard around us were opposed to the display. As the meeting was about to start, we still had heard no sympathetic voices around us. Just before the meeting was called to order, a member of the community stood up and requested that everyone bow their heads and pray that:

1. The right decision would be made (for God!)
2. People would keep God in their hearts
3. Everyone would stay safe and civil
4. God would continue to be the only god around (at this point, I was kind of wtf-ing)

This was followed by the Pledge of Allegiance (with the infamous “under God,” of course), at which point the meeting started.

Cory Brunson addressing the Giles County School Board
(thanks to Rose St Clair of the W&M Freethought Alliance for the picture)

Cory Brunson, a member of the VT Freethinkers, addressed the Board as member of the public as one of the first articles of business, voicing our support for the continued absence of the display, and detailing that, while we don't live in Giles County, as tax payers and members of the same voting district and health district, decisions made by them can affect us. Furthermore, Cory reminded the board that they were, in some ways, the first representatives of the state in this matter, and that they ought to respond in a way that supported what was constitutional, regardless of what was popular.

This was followed by Charlie Henderson urging the Board to approve the display, saying that “everyone knows that this is the right thing to do (followed by an audience Amen!),” volunteering to support the display and the school district with all his “spiritual, physical, and financial resources,” and that he couldn't stand the thought of having to tell his granddaughters that the “costs were too high – we couldn't stand up for what was right.” Moreover, Mr. Henderson had the audacity to say that he felt that it was “ironic” for this debate to be taking place the day after D-Day, given that so many young men and women had given their lives for the freedoms made possible by the documents included in the display (last I checked, there are no freedoms assured by the Ten Commandments).

After this, the decision was announced in a barely-audible mumble by the Chair of the Board, J.B. Buckland: 3-2 for reinstating the display, with Mr. Buckland being joined in support by board members Joseph Gollehon and Ronald Whitehead, notably the oldest members of the board. Board members Drema McMahon and J. Lewis Webb then gave their reasons for voting against the resolution.

In my opinion, Mr. Webb's reasons for opposition were what everyone there ought to (constitutionally speaking) been espousing. He said that, while “his heart [was telling him] one thing,” he knew that voting to put the display back up would have been unconstitutional, and that he had a responsibility as an elected official to uphold the Constitution. I heartily applaud him for voting the right way for the right reasons.

Ms. McMahon, on the other hand, seemed to be covering her ass when she said that she supported the resolution in principle but opposed it on financial grounds (the estimated cost for fighting the case is around $300,000), probably in hopes of reelection to the school board. While I have no problem with giving teachers a raise (they deserve it, definitely; public school teachers in the United States are paid nowhere near what they ought to be), “We can't afford it” isn't really the best of reasons to oppose this resolution. It's not the worst one, and at least it's a vote in the right direction, but actually giving a damn about the constitutionality of the issue instead of lending it an almost tacit support would be preferable in my view.

At this point, the meeting paused for a short break, and we got to talk to some people about what ad just happened. A number of people from the community commended Cory for having the courage to voice his convictions, which was nice to hear, even though many of them disagreed with what he said. A few people did say that they agreed with us, but overall, we were completely taken aback by the apparent lack of vocal support in the community for the separation of church and state. Even the few people who said they agreed with us tended to say so and then all but run away, as if they were afraid of people knowing that they didn't want the display up in the schools.

It was also painfully obvious that most of the people who showed up belonged to the same church. Specifically, as a community member who was not affiliated with them and wished to remain anonymous told us, they belonged to the Riverview Baptist Church. They had a rally beforehand from what we heard, it apparently didn't draw enough people, thus disappointing God!

This same person was probably my favorite person we talked with. While he hadn't spoken up publicly for what he believed to be right, he did agree with us that the Ten Commandments have no place in public schools, and that it was his opinion that the Board's decision was "not what's best for the kids.” He assured us that “not all Christians in Giles County think this is the best Christian decision” and that, in fact, supporters of the display were the “outspoken minority, not the silent majority, of Christians in Giles County.”

Don't get me wrong; I'm glad that there are people who support the separation of church and state in Giles County, but I have to wonder what has them all so scared? Why is it that no one was there to speak with a voice of reason, except for a group of college students from a county over?

In any event, the ACLU and FFRF have both promised to bring suit against the district. Hopefully the education of the children in Giles County won't suffer when the district has to pay all those court fees.

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