Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Local News

May 8, 2012

Court orders mediation in Ten Commandments case

NARROWS, Va. — A federal court judge ordered mediation Monday for the parties involved in a lawsuit about whether the Ten Commandments can be displayed at a Giles County high school.

U.S. District Court Judge Michael F. Urbanski with the U.S. District Court in Roanoke ordered the Giles County School Board and the unnamed student and parent into mediation to see if a compromise can be reached over the display of the biblical texts.

The Liberty Counsel, which is representing the Giles County School Board, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, which is representing the unidentified student and parents, will meet with a magistrate judge during the mediation period. If no decision is made during mediation, the case will return to court.

Matt Staver, founder of the Liberty Counsel, said Urbanski indicated a compromise could be made where the first four Ten Commandments were left off the display. While the first four commandments contain religious references, the final six include prohibitions against murder, adultery, lying and theft.

“No date has been set on the mediation yet, but it will be later probably in June,” Staver said. “If there is resolution, the court will have to make a ruling. Neither side had discussed mediation before today, so the judge for the first time recommended that it go to mediation before it goes to trial. Neither of us had a chance to talk to our clients about what will happen in mediation and none of us have a demand as to the mediation. We should know sometime in June if the mediation was successful or not. The judge asked a question of the ACLU and later of me for the school board if we would be satisfied if only the last six of the Ten Commandments were displayed and not the first four. In other words, he wanted to know if we would edit our part of the Ten Commandments and if the ACLU would press for legal fees if that decision was made.”

Rebecca Glenberg, legal director of the ACLU of Virginia, said the two parties would meet at a later date to begin the mediation process.

“We didn’t expect a decision today,” Glenberg said. “The judge ordered us to go into mediation. That means both sides will meet with a magistrate judge to help us make a compromise. The meeting is yet to be scheduled. It is unusual but not unheard of. The judge thought it would best for us to work together to make a compromise. He thought it would be beneficial to both parties involved. We will discover if a compromise is possible during mediation. We made our arguments and the judge read everything and was very informed about the facts and laws of the case. The judge asked a lot of questions of both sides and ultimately ruled for us to mediate. If we are unable to reach a compromise then the judge will decide.”

In December 2011, Urbanski issued a protective order allowing the parent and student involved in the case to remain anonymous during the suit after the ACLU and Liberty Counsel came to a mutual agreement. Glenberg said the protection was needed due to “hostility toward our client in the community.” As evidence, the ACLU presented several threatening messages toward the student and parent left on Internet forums and in phone calls to the ACLU offices.  

One online message said the parent and student “should (be) ship(ped) overseas to play in the sand with al-Quiada (sic) for a little while,” while a person identified as a Giles County elementary school teacher sent a message to the Freedom From Religion Foundation reading “you folks are allowing Satin (sic) to rule you.” The Liberty Counsel denied threats had been made to the parents and student involved in the suit since they had not been publicly identified.

In November 2011, Urbanski threw out two motions made by the Liberty Counsel on behalf of the Giles County School Board, asking the suit against the county school system be dismissed. The Liberty Counsel made the argument that the school board was not responsible for the display since it was funded and hung by private citizens.

The suit was initially brought in September 2011 by the ACLU of Virginia on behalf of an unnamed Narrows High School Student and the student’s parents. The suit came after a six-month long controversy over hanging the biblical texts in Giles County high schools.

A four-foot tall display of the Ten Commandments was first hung on school walls following the Columbine school shooting in 1999. The display was taken down in December 2010 by school officials after receiving complaints and replaced it with a copy of the Declaration of Independence. In January 2011, the Ten Commandments display was replaced after more complaints from parents and pastors. The display was removed again in February 2011 by school officials with no reason stated.

In March 2011, 50 Giles County High School students walked out of classrooms in protest of the display being removed, but all but 15 returned to class after talking with a school resource officer.

The county’s school board voted 3-2 in June to approve displaying a set of documents including the Ten Commandments, Bill of Rights, Mayflower Compact, the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom and others. The two dissenting members of the school board cited the cost of legal battles as their main reason for their vote.

— Contact Kate Coil at

kcoil@bdtonline.com

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