PIKEVILLE, Ky. (AP) - With its message on yard signs, book covers and the walls of courthouses and public classrooms, a Ten Commandments movement is pushing forward around the nation.

Like anti-abortion legislation earlier, the right to display the commandments has become a high-priority issue for Christian groups, says Frank Flinn, an adjunct professor of religious studies at Washington University in St. Louis.

Proponents argue that the framework for America's system of laws is based on the 10 rules that the biblical book of Exodus says God gave to Moses. The rules should be displayed in schools, they say, insisting that it is legal if the display is paid for with private funds.

The movement stems from a ``heartcry,'' says Janet Parshall, spokeswoman for Family Research Council, a Christian lobby group in Washington, D.C., which has distributed 750,000 Ten Commandments book covers. She says she does not know if the shooters at Columbine High School in Colorado would have been deterred by seeing the Ten Commandments, ``but I'm willing to risk the try.''

The American Civil Liberties Union disagrees.

In Kentucky, the ACLU filed suit Nov. 18 against McCreary and Pulaski counties and the Harlan County schools after the commandments were publicly displayed. The ACLU cites a 1980 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that the posting of the commandments in schools amounted to an unconstitutional government promotion of religion, which is forbidden by the First Amendment. The suits are pending.

Still, in the court of public opinion, Christian groups cannot go wrong by promoting the Ten Commandments, says Flinn, a First Amendment expert. ``The opposition is immediately put in a weak position. If I tell you, `No, the Ten Commandments don't belong in a courtroom or in a classroom,' then automatically I look like I'm for murder and fornication and theft.''

Roy Moore, an Alabama circuit judge who refused to take down the commandments posted in his courtroom in 1995, has spoken at Christian rallies across the country. He encourages school boards to post the Ten Commandments even if it means a costly lawsuit for the district.

In Altoona, Pa., religious leaders and school officials reached an agreement in August allowing an after-school Ten Commandments club and a new comparative course in religions.

In November, the Val Verde Board of Education in California voted to reverse its policy of displaying the Ten Commandments in district offices after the ACLU threatened to sue.

As for the three Kentucky counties, Parshall says, ``They're the ones that are currently in the barrel of the gun of the ACLU if you will, but they really are not a whole lot different than a whole lot of other places across the country.''

Roger Pilon, vice president of legal affairs at Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, says posting the Ten Commandments in public classrooms and courthouses amounts to tyranny.

``Nothing in our constitution prohibits people from expressing and supporting their beliefs as vigorously as they want, provided they do it in the private sector,'' Pilon says. ``What these people seem to want is public sanction for their views and that precisely is what the Constitution prohibits in the establishment clause of the First Amendment.''

Flinn says the postings are legal only if other religions are given the same opportunity.

``My rule is one in, all in,'' Flinn says.

The Ten Commandments movement is catching on because people sense the country has deteriorated since court decisions of the 1960s took prayer out of public schools, says Don Swarthout, a Denver minister who helped plan a Corbin, Ky., rally for the commandments and who is changing his ministry to focus more on them.

Even so, he says he will not be pushing schools to post the commandments.

``If the Ten Commandments were not in the schools we could still have good moral values if people tried to live their life by the Ten Commandments,'' Swarthout says. ``The fact that they hang in the school doesn't immediately fix our schools.''

The movement is influencing merchandise sales at Christian bookstores.

Jim Ratliff, owner of Lighthouse Christian Bookstore in Pikeville, says he sold four to five times more Ten Commandments merchandise, such as plaques and yards signs, in 1999 than in 1998.

The Bible does not change, but what is requested by customers does, Ratliff says.

``There will come a day,'' he says, ``where customers are looking for something else to grab onto.''

Copyright 1999 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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