Sunday, December 05, 1999

No room for 'Big 10' in public classrooms




BY KAREN SAMPLES
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        FORT THOMAS — Even if Barbara Duncan were allowed to post the Ten Commandments, she'd have trouble finding room.

        Ms. Duncan teaches sixth-graders at Ruth Moyer School in Fort Thomas. On her classroom walls the other day, I counted 32 posters, clippings and banners. They included the Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence and various tributes to art, books and the imagination.

        Thomas Jefferson's Rules of Conduct were posted. They advise against procrastination, pride, gluttony, debt and temper tantrums.

        “I don't give grades. You earn them,” said one sign. “You are not finished when you fail. You are finished when you quit,” said another.

        Also on display: the classroom rule, which students chose themselves. “Do unto others what you would want them to do to you,” it says.

        These sorts of messages are common in public schools. Teachers like Ms. Duncan are always working on students' characters as well as their minds.

        Still, some Kentuckians aren't satisfied. They want schools to add this: You must believe in God.

        Riding a wave of fundamentalism, several schools in Eastern Kentucky are posting the Ten Commandments. The American Civil Liberties Union filed suit last month to stop the practice.

        Meanwhile, a Kentucky legislator has written a bill to clear the way for more. It would allow schools to post the Big Ten if local voters and school administrators agreed.

        The last time Kentucky's General Assembly tried to get the commandments into schools, the U.S. Supreme Court said no way.

        I hope it happens again. Here's why.

        According to the Bible, the first commandment handed down from God to Moses was this: “I am the Lord your God ... You shall have no other gods before me.”

        Public schools are government institutions, and as such they have no business telling students to believe in a particular religion. The popular dodge — that volunteers will pay for the signs and hang them — is irrelevant.

        Some will argue that American government already is infused with references to God. They also will say the Ten Commandments are the foundation of Western law — one of the reasons people get thrown in jail for stealing.

        All this is true enough. I'm not saying America's founders weren't religious. They certainly were, and taken as a whole, America is a God-fearing country. This is a good thing.

        But America also is a country committed to the protection of free thought. This commitment is a religion in itself. In part, it allows us to choose and practice our own faith, without pressure or interference from the institutions of government.

        To be sure, these two religions co-exist awkwardly and paradoxically. Our courts attempt to maintain the balance. They allow, for instance, students in public schools to form Bible clubs and wear T-shirts displaying the Ten Commandments.

        In Northern Kentucky, the courts permit groups of students to leave their public schools in the middle of the day, traipse to local churches and study the Bible.

        Undoubtedly, the Supreme Court even would allow some of the Ten Commandments to be posted. For instance, Ms. Duncan could hang a banner that says, “Respect your parents,” or “Don't murder anyone.”

        I'm certain she could also design an educational poster about the commandments. It could list them all and explain how each is echoed in American law.

        So why aren't the fundamentalists suggesting these options?

        Answer: They aren't interested only in history, or in teaching students not to steal. They want them to believe in God, too.

        This may well be the path to a moral life. But it's not a path that our public schools, as institutions, can lay down for young people.

        America needs both its religions. Posting the Ten Commandments in schools amounts to a sacrifice of one for the other.

        Karen Samples is Kentucky columnist for the Enquirer. Her column appears Thursdays and Sundays. She can be reached at 578-5584, or by e-mail at ksamples@enquirer.com.