Update: Judge Michael Urbanski has ordered the two sides into mediation to seek a “reasonable compromise,” the Roanoke Times reported.
Urbanksi suggested that the two sides might consider removing the four commandments that refer directly to God, according to the Lynchburg News & Advance.
Settling out of court could save the Giles County School Board from a hefty legal bill. If the board loses in court, it’d be on the hook for plaintiffs’ attorney fees — more than $100,000, according to the News & Advance.
A long-running and bitter fight over whether the Ten Commandments may be posted in schools continues Monday in a federal courtroom in Roanoke.
At issue is whether the posting of the Ten Commandments in a high school in rural Giles County violates the constitutionally guaranteed separation of church and state.
The plaintiffs are an anonymous student and that student’s parent, who argue that the display amounted to the school’s endorsement of a religion to which the student doesn’t subscribe.
The Giles County School Board, meanwhile, argues that the Ten Commandments were hung as part of a larger display of historic documents — including the Declaration of Independence — that paid tribute to the principles on which the United States was founded.
The plaintiffs are represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, and the school board by Liberty Counsel, which is associated with Liberty University, the Lynchburg evangelical Christian school founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell.
(The Roanoke Times had an interesting profile on Sunday of Liberty Counsel, which has done pro bono work for hundreds of “victims of religious injustice” around the nation.)
The Giles County fight has raged since late 2010, when the school agreed to take down the Ten Commandments in response to a complaint.
That move provoked a passionate reaction from residents of Giles County. Hundreds of students walked out of class to support the Ten Commandments posting and hundreds of residents crowded a January 2011 school board meeting to demand the reinstatement of the display.
“It was never our forefathers’ idea for the Ten Commandments and for God to be taken out of the system,” a pastor said at the time, according to the plaintiffs’ initial complaint.
“God has never done us a disservice in this county and he’s blessed us with the beauty and all we have so we certainly want to honor him by posting his word in the eyes of our students and all that walk the halls,” another pastor said.
The school board voted at that meeting to rehang the Ten Commandments.
After some discussion about how to do so legally, the board decided to create displays of a suite of documents related to the history of the United States and its laws: the Star-Spangled Banner, the Bill of Rights, the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, the Declaration of Independence, the Mayflower Compact and the Magna Carta.
It’s not a religious display so much as a historical one, the school board argues, and therefore it doesn’t violate the separation of church and state.
Both sides are meeting in U.S. District Court Monday to ask Judge Michael Urbanski to rule quickly without holding a trial.
Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond, said he would be surprised if Urbanski agrees to proceed without hearing all the evidence.
The facts in this case are critical, Tobias said, because they will help the judge discern the issue that the U.S. Supreme Court has previously said matters most in cases like these: What was the school board’s intent when it posted the Ten Commandments?
“In lay terms, is it primarily religious or is it not?” Tobias said. “That is what Judge Urbanski has to decide.”
Meanwhile Giles County remains deeply divided. The plaintiffs sought and were granted anonymity to protect them from what they said would be certain retaliation and ostracization.
In court documents, the Associated Press reported, the student spoke of feeling compelled to “hide participation in this lawsuit from my closest friends and the person I am dating.”
“Filing this lawsuit has not been easy, and I would not have done it if I were not genuinely disturbed by the Ten Commandments in the school,” the student said in the court statement, according to the Associated Press.