The time has come for another revisit on the First Amendment and public schools, namely the protections of the First Amendment regarding religious freedom. Namely the revisit is regarding the Ten Commandments, brought to you by the School Board for Giles County, Virginia.
So let’s make the question very plain: does a school violate the First Amendment when putting the Ten Commandments on public display? While virtually every Court that has addressed this question has said "Yes", let us examine more closely why this is the case.
First, a public school is a government entity created by an act of government. The incorporation doctrine says that the limitations of the First Amendment apply to State and local governments and any entities created by that government, including public schools. So public schools and their school boards are limited by the First Amendment.
So how does displaying the Ten Commandments run afoul of the First Amendment?
Namely the display runs afoul of the Establishment Clause: "Congress shall make no law respecting and establishment of religion…" I’ve already discussed the meaning of these words in great detail, so I highly recommend you read it if you are under the impression that these words simply mean that Congress cannot establish a religion:
With regard to the First Amendment regarding Congress’ prohibition on making laws "respecting an establishment of religion", the Constitution is prohibiting Congress from making laws that have regard for the foundations and principles of all religion.
Again this limitation applies to the States and their local municipalities and any government-created entities by way of the Fourteenth Amendment.
So how does the Ten Commandments come into play here?
The Ten Commandments exist only in a religious context, namely in the Pentateuch, with similar wording appearing in the Qur’an, but when individuals consider the Ten Commandments, they tend to consider only the words in the Book of Exodus. This means that the school that places the Ten Commandments on display is doing so in respect to the establishments of Christianity and, indirectly, Judaism. The respect is in the form of indirect promotion of those religions.
The First Amendment, again, forbids any level of government from "respecting an establishment of religion". So by respecting the establishments of Christianity by attempting to indirectly promote Christianity through the display of the Decalogue, the school is running afoul of the Establishment Clause. It’s as plain as that.
And a public school can no more display the Eight "I’d Rather You Didn’ts" than it can the Ten Commandments. It is enjoined in all cases.