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Ten Commandments' return to Va. school district depends on legal battle's outcome

By Kevin Sieff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 23, 2011; 9:45 PM

The School Board in Giles County, Va., voted this week to remove the Ten Commandments from the walls of its public schools after a pair of civil liberty groups announced they were preparing to sue the district.

But officials involved in the case suggested that the commandments might be replaced, along with a number of other historical documents in an effort that could strengthen the school district's case in court.

School officials put the commandments up 12 years ago, in the aftermath of the shootings at Columbine High School, to help encourage a sense of moral values in the school system. In December, after receiving an anonymous complaint, Superintendent Terry Arbogast decided to remove displays featuring the commandments. But in a raucous School Board meeting in January, the board voted unanimously to return them to the school hallways. County officials said they would proudly help fight the case in court.

Now the commandments - which are placed in the same frame as the preamble to U.S. Constitution - have again been removed. Residents expressed confidence that they will be back again after a legal battle that could resonate far beyond southwestern Virginia, with attorneys converging on Giles from across the country to take on the case.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation announced their intention to represent two families that object to the commandments being displayed. And the Orlando-based Liberty Counsel, a conservative legal group that focuses on cases involving religious expression, has said it would defend the school district at no cost.

In the meantime, residents are preparing to buy billboards and paint tractor-trailers with the words, "We support the Ten Commandments in our schools."

"We're just gearing up for this," said pastor Shahn Wilburn, who first suggested displaying the Ten Commandments after Columbine. "No one here is backing down."

Why school officials decided to remove the commandments Tuesday is still in some dispute.

Giles County Superintendent Terry Arbogast told NBC affiliate WSLS (Channel 10) that the Liberty Counsel would not defend the school division if it kept the old display. But Liberty's founder, Mathew Staver, disputed that account.

"We made it clear that we would be willing to defend the school whether they kept the current display or altered it," he said. "There are pros and cons to both strategies. We never said, 'Here's the better chance.' "

In the past, displays including the Ten Commandments have sometimes fared well against court challenges when the display incorporated secular historical documents. But the fact that Giles's display remained unchanged - and largely uncriticized - for more than a decade could also have been a boon to the district's legal defense, Staver said. "It could be seen as a trade-off."

School Board member J.B. Buckland said the district was deterred by the potentially high costs of a lawsuit, which would have been their responsibility if Liberty Counsel declined to take the case pro bono.

"We can't justify spending $300,000 at a time like this, when we need that money for instruction," he said. "But based on the Liberty Counsel's advice, we will consider putting something back up."

Arbogast could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Federal courts in recent years have issued varied rulings on cases involving the Ten Commandments in public buildings. Staver said the Liberty Counsel in the past five years has won four such cases in federal courts of appeal.

But constitutional scholars say the Supreme Court, which would likely decide a case such as Giles County's, is unlikely to agree with such a display in a public school.

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