Debate was recently sparked in Muldrow, Oklahoma, after an activist group -- at the behest of a teen atheist who attends the local high school -- threatened to sue over the presence of Ten Commandments displays in classrooms. Rather than risk going to court with the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), a non-theist organization, Muldrow Public Schools voted to remove the plaques, which were donated to the district in the 1990s.
On Monday, the Times-Record reported that the religious symbols were officially taken off the walls in high school classrooms. The decision was made at a school board meeting on Monday -- one that was widely attended by the local community. Christians came with Bible-based slogans on their cars and with t-shirts defending the presence of the Ten Commandments displays. Bibles, too, were brought to the meeting. But their efforts were naught.
Photo Credit: Freedom From Religion Foundation
Despite passionate views on the matter and a calculated effort to defend the plaques, the board inevitably told the audience that the decision to remove the displays had been made.
"They wish the Ten Commandments could remain in the classrooms. Unfortunately, it is my unpleasant job to tell you the situation is otherwise," said school board attorney Jerry Richardson.
The student at the center of the debacle, who was previously unnamed but who was recently identified and profiled on the Friendly Atheist blog, set the removals in motion after he recently complained about the plaques. The high school junior, Gabe Pulliam, is a non-believer who purportedly felt uncomfortable by the presence of the religious symbols in public school classrooms. The Friendly Atheist has more about his story (read the rest here):
Gage, an atheist for several years now, sat in classrooms with these plaques since freshman year. It didn’t take long for him to realize that they were actually illegal. After browsing Reddit Atheism (where these kinds of stories are rampant) and looking at the FFRF’s website, he finally mustered up enough courage a couple of months ago to contact them. In order to offer some proof that this was really happening, he took a picture of one of the plaques in his Biology classroom when no one else was looking. FFRF took it from there and sent the district a complaint letter last week.
Things really picked up steam in the middle of the week after a friend of Gage’s found out what he had done and told a few others. Word spread quickly. In small town Oklahoma, Gage told me, little things can become big deals when they involve religion.
Pulliam has said that he is not attacking religion and that his only intent is "to help others so they can feel equal in a world, in a town."
The FFRF, which sent a letter to the district on May 1, highlighting Pulliam's grievances, released a statement on Monday, proclaiming that they are pleased with Muldrow Public Schools' compliance.
"We are pleased the school administration has removed the Ten Commandments, in compliance with the Constitution. This is settled law," said FFRF co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor. "Public schools cannot advance or endorse religion."
Both Richardson and Gaylor seemed to be pointing to a 1980 Supreme Court battle (Stone vs. Graham) over a Kentucky law that mandated the Ten Commandments be placed in public schools. The court ruled that it was unconstitutional.
Reaction from some students, parents and members of the community, though, struck a different tone. Some were disappointed and others hoped to see the Ten Commandments someday return to the school.
"The commandments have been there ever since I can remember, ever since elementary school," said Blakely Palafox, a senior at the high school, according to KFSM-TV. "I think it’s actually kind of stupid to take away something so important to our school. Those Ten Commandments have been there forever."
For now, the situation is settled.