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News / Nation & World

Louisiana’s new law requiring the Ten Commandments in classrooms churns old political conflicts

By KEVIN McGILL, Associated Press
Published: June 20, 2024, 12:20pm

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A bill signed into law this week makes Louisiana the only state to require that the Ten Commandments be displayed in every classroom in public schools and colleges — and stirs the long-running debate over the role of religion in government institutions.

Under the new law, all public K-12 classrooms and state-funded universities will be required to display a poster-sized display of the Ten Commandments in “large, easily readable font” next year.

Civil liberties groups planned lawsuits to block the law signed by Republican Gov. Jeff Landry, saying it would unconstitutionally breach protections against government-imposed religion.

Chris Dier, who was named the Louisiana Teacher of the Year in 2020, said Thursday that he worried the required display could send a message that a “teacher, school, community and state prefers certain religions over others” and could make some students “feel incredibly isolated.”

State officials are stressing the history of the Ten Commandments, which the bill calls “foundational documents of our state and national government.”

“The 10 Commandments are pretty simple (don’t kill, steal, cheat on your wife), but they also are important to our country’s foundations,” Attorney Gen. Liz Murrill, a Republican ally of Landry who will defend the law in court, said in a social media statement.

Similar bills requiring the Ten Commandments be displayed in classrooms have been proposed in other statehouses — including Texas, Oklahoma and Utah.

Earlier Ten Commandments controversies

In 1980, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a similar Kentucky law violated the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution, which says Congress can “make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” The high court found that the law had no secular purpose but rather served a plainly religious purpose.

In its most recent rulings on Ten Commandments displays, the Supreme Court held in 2005 that such displays in a pair of Kentucky courthouses violated the Constitution. At the same time, the court upheld a Ten Commandments marker on the grounds of the Texas state Capitol in Austin. Those were 5-4 decisions but the court’s makeup has changed, with a 6-3 conservative majority now.

The issue has roiled politics in other states from time to time.

In Alabama, Roy Moore was removed as chief justice of the state Supreme Court in 2003 for disobeying a court order to remove a Ten Commandments monument from the court’s building. After he was elected to the post again, Moore was suspended from the bench in 2016 after a judicial discipline panel ruled he had urged probate judges to refuse marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Moore disputed the accusation.

Voters approved an amendment to the Alabama Constitution in 2018 saying schools and public buildings can display the Ten Commandments as long as it is done in a way that “complies with constitutional requirements,” such as being intermingled with historical documents.

Other religion-government fights

Louisiana has had a prominent role in the church-state legal fight before. In 1987, the Supreme Court struck down a 1981 Louisiana statute that required instruction on evolution to be accompanied by teaching on “creation science.” The court found that the statute had no identifiable secular purpose and the “pre-eminent purpose of the Louisiana Legislature was clearly to advance the religious viewpoint that a supernatural being created humankind.”

Mississippi has mandated the display of “In God We Trust” in schools since 2001. Louisiana passed a similar mandate that became law last year.

The latest pushes to post the Ten Commandments follow a major victory for the religious right in 2022: The Supreme Court ruled that a high school football coach in the state of Washington who knelt and prayed on the field after games was protected by the Constitution.

How the Ten Commandments are viewed

Jews and Christians regard the Ten Commandments as having been given by God to Moses, according to biblical accounts, on Mount Sinai. Not every Christian tradition uses the same Ten Commandments. The order varies as does the phrasing, depending on which Bible translation is used. The Ten Commandments in the signed Louisiana legislation are listed in an order common among some Protestant and Orthodox traditions.