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Push for posting 10 Commandments gaining in states; 'Hang Ten' campaign seeks to bypass church-state issue

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Hoping it has found an antidote to school violence and moral decay, an increasingly successful evangelical Christian lobby is campaigning to have the Ten Commandments displayed in classrooms and public buildings.

And despite some protests, a rising number of state legislatures seem to be buying their argument.

The Washington-based Family Research Council calls its effort to put the Commandments on walls in schools, courtrooms and other public buildings "Hang Ten." Nine states are considering legislation to allow the display, and bills could be introduced soon in two states.

"Our kids live in a world where they have disconnected choice and consequences. We send our kids off to school, and we worry that they'll come home in a body bag," said Janet Parshall, a spokeswoman for the Family Research Council. "What we're trying to remind them with the hanging of the Ten Commandments is there is a moral code of behavior."

"The Ten Commandments have certainly passed the test of time as well as universality," said the Rev. Rob Schenck, who leads a similar effort, the Washington-based Ten Commandments Project. "In other words, Jews, Christians, Muslims and virtually every other religious tradition at least countenance the Ten Commandments, if not explicitly endorse them. They bring us together. They don't divide us."

Civil liberties and liberal advocacy groups are distressed by the campaign and are fighting it one battle at a time across the nation. They contend that Ten Commandments displays are intended to have the government promote religious ideals -- something that the Constitution, as they read it, does not tolerate.

Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, calls the trend "nothing short of appalling."

"This is all driven by looking for some kind of magic fix to school violence," he said. "If the mere presence of religious material stopped sin, the presence of Gideons Bible in hotel rooms would have stopped adultery long ago."

But the pressure to pass such legislation is irresistible to many politicians. John Krull, executive director of the Indiana Civil Liberties Union, said most lawmakers in his state were reluctant to vote against the word of God.

"What happened in the Indiana Legislature is this thing picked up steam, and it became very, very difficult for any legislator to stand up and oppose it," he said.

Last week, the Indiana Legislature sent a Ten Commandments bill to the governor, where it awaits his signature. The governor has not indicated whether he will sign it, but even if he does not, the Legislature can override his veto with a simple majority.

Legislatures in Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma and South Dakota are also considering Ten Commandments legislation. Similar measures may be introduced in Minnesota and North Carolina.

The wave of bills is an attempt to get around a 20-year-old Supreme Court ruling that prohibited the display of the Ten Commandments in a Kentucky public school. The court said the display was "plainly religious in nature" and violated the Constitution's establishment clause, which strictly limits the relationship between government and religion.

The movement to hang the Commandments in public places goes back decades and gained national prominence in 1995 when Alabama Circuit Judge Roy Moore defiantly displayed a copy in his courtroom.

In October, the Family Research Council launched "Hang Ten," encouraging Congress members to publicly post the Ten Commandments in their offices. The group has also distributed 175,000 book covers to students imprinted with the Commandments. "The ACLU can't touch this one," Parshall said.

Now, "Hang Ten" is setting its sights on the states. The drafters of this new wave of legislation may have found a loophole that would permit the Ten Commandments to hang in a display of historic documents.

In part, those advocates are relying upon the Supreme Court's 1980 Kentucky classroom display decision. The court barred "posting of religious texts on the wall," saying that doing so served "no educational function." But the opinion added that the Ten Commandments could be "integrated into the school curriculum," as part of a study of "history, civilization, ethics, comparative religion or the like."

"Hang Ten" proponents are also relying in part on several Supreme Court rulings allowing the display of Christian symbols -- for example, a Nativity scene -- on government property as long as they are surrounded by enough nonreligious symbols to neutralize the religious effect.

But the Commandments' promoters have won one significant courtroom victory in a case involving a stand-alone display of the Ten Commandments -- on the city hall lawn in Elkhart, Ind. A federal judge ruled last year that the Ten Commandments are not sectarian and, therefore, do not violate the Constitution's religion clauses. The Indiana Civil Liberties Union has appealed the decision to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Legal scholars say the argument that religion plays an important role in American history has merit.

"Within a context of not proselytizing but putting [the Ten Commandments] together with other historical evidence, it is perfectly appropriate, and I would argue essential, to include religious elements," said Michael Meyerson, a University of Baltimore professor who teaches constitutional law. "You can't understand where our law comes from without including the Ten Commandments."

But civil libertarians say many such historic displays are a sham, designed to sidestep the Constitution. In Kentucky, for example, where the ACLU sued last year to stop a Ten Commandments display at a county courthouse, the display was then altered by adding such documents as a copy of the Mayflower Compact, excerpts from the Declaration of Independence with references to God and the Bible, and a proclamation by President Ronald Reagan declaring 1983 the "Year of the Bible."

"I don't think any of these states are passing anything that will meet constitutional muster," said Lynn of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.

The kind of documents included in the display might well determine its constitutionality, Meyerson said.

"It would depend on whether it looked like they were trying to endorse religion and trying to fool people, or they're trying to include it with other valid historical items," Meyerson said. "You can't remove religion from American history. But you also can't indoctrinate with religion in the name of history."

There is no move afoot to introduce such Ten Commandments legislation in Maryland. But Krull of the Indiana Civil Liberties Union said it could be coming soon to a statehouse near you.

"This is one of those trains that once it starts rolling," he said, "it's going to roll to quite a few places."

Sun staff writer Lyle Denniston contributed to this article.

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