Breathitt schools ordered to take down copies of Ten Commandments

The Breathitt County Public Schools' state-appointed manager has directed the district's schools to take down copies of the Ten Commandments after receiving a complaint from an organization that supports "non-religion."

Larry Hammond, named in December to run the troubled Breathitt County Schools, said Friday that he sent out the directive after receiving a letter from the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation earlier in the week.

Copies of the Ten Commandments have been on display in "most rooms" at the high school and middle school and in "some elementary school rooms" in Breathitt County, according to a three-page letter from Patrick Elliott, staff attorney with the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

"We were also informed that the Ten Commandments are prominently placed in many areas, including the front office and conference rooms," the letter said.

Elliott said copies had been on display in the school system "for many years" in what he called a "flagrant violation" of the U.S. Constitution. The displays "must be removed immediately," he wrote.

Elliott said in an interview with the Herald-Leader that he wrote the letter after the Freedom From Religion Foundation recently received a complaint from a Breathitt County Schools student.

Hammond said he sent emails and letters directing principals in the Breathitt County district to remove any Commandments displays. He said he's familiar with similar cases in other school districts over the years.

The news apparently hasn't gone over well in the county. WYMT-TV ran interviews with a number of residents who contended that the Ten Commandments belong in schools.

State education officials named Hammond to take over management of the Breathitt Schools after former superintendent Arch Turner was sentenced to federal prison in a vote-buying scheme.

The U.S. Supreme Court in 1980 generally struck down displays of the Ten Commandments in schools. That ruling stemmed from a challenge to a 1978 Kentucky law that required the Commandments to be displayed in public schools if the funding for it came from non-government sources.

However, issues over posting the Ten Commandments in public places have persisted in Kentucky.

In 1999, the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky sued Pulaski County, McCreary County and the Harlan County Schools over displays of the Commandments in schools and county buildings. The Harlan Schools eventually removed the displays from its facilities. But Pulaski and McCreary counties fought on, lost in court and ultimately owed the civil liberties organization more than $450,000 in legal fees.

In his letter to the Breathitt Schools, Elliott contended that displaying the Ten Commandments amounted to a promotion of religion and "impermissibly turns any non-Christian or non-believing student, parent or staff member into an outsider."

In the letter, Elliott urged Hammond to direct principals to immediately remove all Ten Commandments displays, and instructed them to "make no statements which send a message of support for religion in public schools."

"Please inform us at your earliest convenience about the steps you are taking to rectify this egregious situation," the letter states.

According to Elliott, the issue probably will go no further if the school district complies.

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader