Public Policy Center, University of Nebraska


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Published by Abdel-Monem in Iowa Law Review (2001-2002) 87. Copyright 2002, University of Iowa.


The notion of religion being introduced in a public school setting is a controversial and socially divisive topic. When the church encroaches on the state's domain, courts are called upon to adjudicate the matter as a constitutional issue. If public schools impose religion on students, courts invoke the Constitution's Establishment Clause, which states: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion."

The courts should prepare themselves for a new round of Establishment Clause cases. "Hang Ten"-a movement to post the Ten Commandments in public schools and buildings-has arrived, raising intense debate in communities and state legislatures across the nation. By mid-May of 2000, three states had enacted laws allowing public schools to "Hang Ten" in classrooms, but with a caveat-only if the Ten Commandments are posted alongside documents like the Declaration of Independence or United States Constitution. According to "Hang Ten" proponents, such classroom displays ostensibly present the Ten Commandments as a historical document, not a religious tenet, contributing to a secular educational display of fundamental historic documents.

Is "Hang Ten" permissible under the Establishment Clause? Supreme Court decisions leave ample room for debate. In Stone v. Graham, the Court ruled that public schools could not post the Ten Commandments in classrooms because of its clear religious nature. In Stone, however, the Commandments hung alone. Instead, the constitutionality of "Hang Ten" could hinge on Lynch v. Donnelly and Allegheny v. ACLU. In those cases, the Court upheld government holiday displays of religious imagery-a nativity scene and menorah-because they were "secularized" by other items in the display that negated the religious nature of those two symbols."

There are movements to "Hang Ten" in government buildings and property in many communities, including schools, court houses, and municipal buildings in general. This Note focuses on "Hang Ten" displays in public schools, where the targeted audience-schoolchildren-may be particularly vulnerable to direct or subtle religious influence. This Note examines Stone, Lynch, Allegheny, and other Supreme Court cases that may provide an answer to the constitutional question prompted by "Hang Ten." Part II outlines the Supreme Court's development of Establishment Clause analyses in its case law, examines the characteristics of the Court's currently used "endorsement" analysis to church-state cases, reviews the Court's methods of determining government purpose behind religious activities, and examines the treatment of church-state cases involving schoolchildren. Part III provides background information on the Ten Commandments and the "Hang Ten" movement, suggests a framework for analyzing the constitutionality of "Hang Ten" displays, and proposes a result consistent with that framework. Part IV concludes with a recommendation that courts should strike down "Hang Ten" displays if they are intended to promote religious ideals. The author also offers some afterthoughts relevant to this new development in public schools.

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