By Heather Mullinix
The Cumberland County Board of Education voted unanimously Thursday to display the Ten Commandments and other historic documents in county schools.
But that approval came over the warnings of BOE Attorney Earl Patton, who cautioned that the board might still be a "guinea pig" for a challenge of a law passed by the Tennessee General Assembly last April.
"If there is a question, the question is whether or not you're willing to take some risk to take this stand," Patton said.
The Tennessee General Assembly passed legislation authorizing local governments to put up displays containing historic documents, such as the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, Mayflower Compact and the Ten Commandments, saying they are "treasures that should be displayed proudly and resolutely in public buildings and on public grounds."
Patton cautioned the board, "If the board wants to take this on, I would suggest you are still being somewhat of a guinea pig in deciding to do that. It might be wise to let this play out a little bit under this new state statute. At a minimum, I believe you need a carefully thought out wording in a resolution of what your intent is in passing this."
Richard Janeway, 2nd District representative, noted lawsuits objecting to the placement of the Ten Commandments in public buildings had not been successful in the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, which handles cases in Tennessee.
"My warning has nothing to do with a fear you will lose," Patton said. "It's a fear you will be sued and it will cost you a lot of money."
Vivian Hutson, 6th District representative, asked if the state would be responsible for legal defense costs if the board followed the law that was passed. Patton said it would not.
Patton also said the board needed to discuss its reasons for wanting to include the Ten Commandments, as the reason behind the approval would be a key in determining constitutionality, along with the history of such displays in the community. Displays of the Ten Commandments must also be placed on equal footing with other historic documents.
The motion stated the board authorized schools to include the Ten Commandments, Magna Carta, Mayflower Compact, Declaration of Independence, U.S. Constitution, Bill of Rights, Constitution of Tennessee and other such historically significant documents in their display of documents as referenced in TCA 5-7-115. The motion was made by David Bowman, 7th District representative, and supported by Josh Stone, 4th District representative.
Each school has a Freedom Wall, which includes displays of many of the historic documents mentioned, but the Ten Commandments is not currently included. Those walls have been provided by the Lake Tansi Exchange Club for many years, Director of Schools Aarona VanWinkle said.
Charles Tollett, 1st District representative, said, "It has long been a purpose in education to teach young people about their history. It's not our purpose to dictate religious preference. This document is historically significant. One could argue it promotes a particular religion, but several religions trace back to this. It's not a religious document in the sense we are talking about displaying."
Janeway added the board was merely looking to authorize displays but was not mandating the displays be erected.
Dan Schlafer, 9th District representative, asked if a motion was even needed since a state law had already been passed to allow for the display.
Bowman said the board had approved many things he didn't necessarily agree with since he was elected to the board, but that they had no choice due to state law.
"The Ten Commandments is a historical document," Bowman said. "I don't see how that can be considered morally wrong when the state of Tennessee says it is a historical document."
Jim Blalock, 8th District representative, said he understood the Ten Commandments, if displayed, were to be included with other historic documents and of a similar size. Also, the board was not approving any funds to purchase plaques but merely allowing for display.
The motion was unanimously approved.