Federal Judge Allows Case Challenging Giles County Ten Commandments Display to Advance

Court also addresses issue of plaintiffs’ anonymity.

Roanoke, VA – U.S. District Court Judge Michael Urbanski yesterday denied a motion to dismiss the ACLU of Virginia and Freedom from Religion Foundation’s case challenging the posting of the Ten Commandments at Narrows High School in Giles County.

“We’re pleased that the court has allowed us to move forward with our case,” said ACLU of Virginia Legal Director Rebecca Glenberg.  “We intend to show that the School Board cannot simply shroud its religious purpose for posting the Ten Commandments by surrounding it with historical documents.”

The court also heard arguments in the plaintiffs’ motion to proceed using pseudonyms. The ACLU and FFRF argue that the use of pseudonyms protects the plaintiffs from the vitriol of community members who support the Ten Commandments display.  Judge Urbanski asked counsel to work out an agreement that would provide safeguards to protect the plaintiffs, and said he would enter a protective order himself if the parties could not agree.

“The community has already shown significant animosity toward our clients,” added Glenberg.  “We have no doubt that if their identities were revealed that they would be the targets of more direct harassment.”

The controversy began in late 2010, when the Freedom from Religion Foundation received complaints about the posting of the Ten Commandments with the Constitution in Giles County public schools, a practice that had been in place for years.  Over the next six months a dispute ensued in which the Ten Commandments were removed, reposted, then removed again, and ultimately posted in a display with historical documents relating to American history, such as the Declaration of Independence, the Star-Spangled Banner, and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.

The ACLU and FFRF filed suit on September 13, 2011 on behalf of a student and the student’s parent arguing that the display amounts to government endorsement of religion and therefore violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

The Ten Commandments are posted on a main hallway at the high school, near the trophy case and on the way to the cafeteria, where it is seen by students every day.

The plaintiffs are represented by Rebecca K. Glenberg and Thomas Okuda Fitzpatrick of the ACLU of Virginia, Patrick Elliott of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, and Frank Feibelman, cooperating attorney for the ACLU of Virginia.  The complaint can be found online at http://acluva.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/20110913GilesCo10CsDoecomplaint.pdf

Contact: Kent Willis, Executive Director, 804-644-8022

Update Dec. 13, 2011

On December 12, 2011, Judge Urbanski signed a protective order that was agreed to by the parties.  The order provides that the plaintiffs will be referred to by their pseudonyms, Doe 1 and Doe 2, throughout the litigation.  The School Board’s attorneys and their staff will have access to the plaintiffs’ identities, along with two representatives of the school district: the superintendent and the network administrator.   If any of these individuals discloses the plaintiff’s identity, they will be subject to sanctions by the court, including possible incarceration.  The order states that “no harassment, threats, intimidation or interference with the Plaintiffs will be tolerated and violators will be subject to contempt proceedings.”