Will Giles County Become the Epicenter of the Next Great Fight Over Religion in the Public Square?

Will tiny Giles County, Virginia become the next battleground in the battle over freedom of religion?

On December 8, 2010, a staff-attorney at the Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation sent a letter to Dr. Terry Arbogast, Superintendent of Giles County Public Schools, informing him that the county’s longstanding policy of displaying the Ten Commandments beneath a copy of the U.S. Constitution in each of the county’s public schools violates the very Constitution it is displayed beneath (as interpreted in Stone v. Graham, 449 U.S. 39). The letter continued that

The First Commandment alone makes it obvious why the Ten Commandments may not be posted in public schools. The school has no business telling young children which god they must have, how many gods they must have, or that they must have any god at all.

The Freedom from Religion Foundation sent the letter in response to a complaint it had received about the display in Macy McClaugherty Elementary School. Dr. Arbogast was advised to remove the Ten Commandments from the display and notify the foundation in writing. Nine days after the letter was drafted, fearing the cost of legal action to a small county (population 16,657) like Giles, Dr. Arbogast compiled.

Late last week, the Giles County School Board voted unanimously to restore the Ten Commandments to the display cases of the county’s schools after a heated meeting, attended by over 100 concerned county residents, parents, teachers and clergy. Before the vote, Eric Gentry, chairman of the County Board of Supervisors assured the School Board that the county government would support the School Board if it voted to defy the Freedom from Religion Foundation’s request.

The Freedom from Religion Foundation has stated that it will proceed with legal action against Giles County if a resident of the county asks it to. The Lynchburg-based Liberty Counsel is prepared to defend the county’s policy if a lawsuit is filed. In an interview with Roanoke CBS-affiliate WDBJ-7, Liberty Counsel chairman Matt Staver reaffirmed the important role the Ten Commandments have played in America’s civic history:

The Ten Commandments are clearly home on many public grounds, certainly in courts of law all over America because it has performed a significant influence in shaping the component of American law and government.

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