ACLU of Illinois Criticizes State Bill on Ten Commandments

Affiliate: ACLU of Illinois
February 10, 2000 12:00 am

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CHICAGO — Noting that proponents of a measure allowing posting of the Ten Commandments in public schools misrepresents America’s heritage of religious tolerance, the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois today condemned efforts in the Illinois General Assembly to allow such religious postings.

The proposal, contained in House Bill 3854 sponsored by Representative James Fowler (D-Harrisburg), bans “content-based censorship of American history or heritage based on any religious references contained in these documents, writings or records.” The bill, approved by a House Committee yesterday, will next be considered by the entire Illinois House of Representatives.

The ACLU noted that the measure is designed solely to allow the posting of the Ten Commandments — clearly sacred religious texts — in public schools, a direct violation of the First Amendment’s prohibition against using the state’s educational resources to advance a particular religious viewpoint.

“The Illinois General Assembly simply cannot rearrange constitutional protections to gain political advantage,” said Edwin C. Yohnka, Director of Communications for the ACLU of Illinois. “The sponsor of this legislation acknowledged in the Committee hearing that the legislation’s central purpose is to facilitate posting the Ten Commandments in public schools – a clear violation of federal law and the Illinois state constitution.”

The ACLU also noted today that the Supreme Court of the United States already addressed this issue directly — rendering the proposed legislation futile. In Stone v. Graham, a 1980 case from Kentucky, the Justices held that legislatures cannot simply create a “secular purpose” for posting the Ten Commandments. The ACLU believes that federal courts would rule in a similar way to a challenge to the Illinois legislation.

“The court recognized in 1980 that our nation’s Founders sought to avoid the ability of any group — even a vast majority — to force their religious views on an entire community,” Yohnka said. “This simple, courageous precept is at the heart of America’s history of religious tolerance. This legislation moves against this heritage, all for the sake of political expediency.”

HB3854 grew out of a recent dispute concerning the Ten Commandments in downstate Harrisburg. On October 26, 1999, a majority of the Harrisburg School Board voted to post the Ten Commandments in each of the district’s four school buildings.

The ACLU received a flurry of calls after that vote from concerned citizens in Harrisburg upset about the decision, especially parents of children in the public schools. The parents strongly objected to the Board’s clear attempt at engaging their children in religious indoctrination, a role that parents traditionally reserve to themselves.

Lawyers for the ACLU of Illinois sent a letter to the school district explaining that the posting of the Ten Commandments was a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition against government establishing religion, and that the action specifically violated the Supreme Court’s 1980 decision.

A day before the ACLU was to file a federal lawsuit, the Board held a special meeting and reversed their decision.

“This is simply another effort by an ideologically driven group to force their views upon an entire community,” Yohnka said. “In Harrisburg, we heard numerous disturbing stories about the way in which that controversy caused intolerance and disunity. We do not need for this process to be repeated all over the State of Illinois.”

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