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Does a Ten Commandments Display in Classrooms Violate the Constitution?

Schools in Louisiana may soon be required to display the Ten Commandments in their classrooms.

In May, Louisiana lawmakers passed a bill that would require all public schools in the state to display the Ten Commandments in every classroom no later than this coming Jan. 1. The bill awaits Republican Gov. Jeff Landry’s signature.

The Pelican State is the first in recent years to pass a bill requiring schools to display the religious directives. But lawmakers in Arizona, Georgia, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Utah, and West Virginia have all introduced similar bills, none of which has passed yet.

The bills are a part of a growing push to incorporate religion, specifically Christianity, into the public education system as Republican lawmakers have grown more comfortable with policies that mix religion with public education and public funds.

Last year, Louisiana joined 17 states in requiring or explicitly allowing schools to display the national motto, “In God We Trust,” on classroom walls. In Oklahoma and Ohio, governors recently have signed laws requiring schools to accommodate students who leave in the middle of the school day to participate in private religious instruction, according to the Associated Press. A number of states in recent years have passed or expanded programs that allow families to spend public funds at private schools of their choice, including religious institutions, which have collected the vast majority of such public tuition funds in some states.

And earlier this year in Utah, Republican Gov. Spencer Cox signed a bill that would allow history teachers to use the Ten Commandments and the Magna Carta in curricula. (The original version would have required schools to display the Ten Commandments, but lawmakers amended it after it didn’t draw enough support.)

“There’s definitely a political appetite among some [lawmakers] to bring [religion] into the public sphere,” said Bryan Kelley, a researcher who has studied religion in education. “Christian nationalism is a real force that can be seen to have legs, and some politicians are seeing success by campaigning on Christian nationalism and that’s rewarded by the voters.”

The trend is not unique to the moment. For decades, there have been political debates over lessons about evolution and creationism, the use of the Bible and Ten Commandments as historical text, and prayer in school settings.

But the laws that have passed in recent years—especially following a series of U.S. Supreme Court rulings that have paved the way for public funds to pay for education at religious schools—have real implications for educators.

What does the Supreme Court say?

In 1980, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Stone v. Graham that a Kentucky statute requiring school officials to display a copy of the Ten Commandments in public classrooms violated the First Amendment’s establishment clause, which prohibits the government from establishing a religion through law and is commonly understood as the foundation for the separation of church and state.

On its face, that ruling may make it seem as if any time the Ten Commandments is mentioned or shown in a school building that there’s been a constitutional violation. But it’s not that simple, said Derek Black, a constitutional law professor at the University of South Carolina.

“What some courts have noted is that context matters,” Black said. The Stone v. Graham ruling “doesn’t mean that the Ten Commandments are a controlled substance that cannot be brought into school.”

For example, teachers can use the Christian tenets alongside other historical documents such as the Justinian Code, the Declaration of Independence, or the Magna Carta to teach students about its historical impact on the founding of societies and governments. It’s when schools suggest that the Ten Commandments are a moral code that students should follow that they risk violating the Constitution, Black said.

“There’s no prohibition on displaying or using the Ten Commandments as you would any other historical document,” he said. “It’s when you elevate them as something more than just a historical document or you isolate them by themselves it seems you’re endorsing religion.”

In the Louisiana bill, schools would be required to post the Ten Commandments on a poster or framed document that is at least 11 by 14 inches in size, but schools can choose to make the posters bigger or more prominent. The poster is required to “be printed in a large, easily readable font,” the law says.

Public schools and universities are also required to include a three-paragraph “context statement,” explaining the history of the Ten Commandments in the American public education system. The statement, written into the law, explains how the document has been used in education throughout American history, noting various versions of textbooks that have included the Ten Commandments.

The bill also specifies that schools can choose to display the Mayflower Compact, the Declaration of Independence, and the Northwest Ordinance alongside the Ten Commandments, but those documents are not required. It doesn’t specify which version of the Ten Commandments schools should display or any other religious texts schools may display.

In debate over the bill, lawmakers acknowledged the possibility of a lawsuit challenging the policy and added the “context statement” and the provision saying schools could display the other historical documents alongside the Ten Commandments in an attempt to bolster the bill’s legality, according to the Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate.

The bill’s “purpose is not solely religious,” and the Ten Commandments are “simply one of many documents that display the history of our country and foundation of our legal system,” state Sen. Jay Morris, a Republican, told the newspaper.

Despite the “context statement” requirement and the provision stating schools can display other documents, it’s notable that the only document schools are required to post is the Ten Commandments, Black said.

“What you’re doing is picking that one out and saying this is the one that must be displayed,” Black said. “So what you’re doing is sort of elevating its status—that’s my words, not the court—but you’re intentionally elevating its status to convey, I think, a religious message and then trying to put a little disclaimer on there.”

While the Stone v. Graham precedent has remained intact since 1980, the Supreme Court has become more sympathetic to the place of religion in public life over the past decade.

A slate of rulings in recent years—most notably Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, in which the Supreme Court said that a high school football coach’s postgame prayers at midfield were protected by the First Amendment’s free speech and free exercise of religion clauses—have likely made lawmakers more comfortable with the idea of passing laws like the Ten Commandments requirement, said Kelley, who previously tracked developments on religion in education as a policy analyst at the Education Commission of the States.

“In the last 10 years, there’s been a real step toward encouraging, or at least enabling, religious participation in the public school legal environment by the Supreme Court cases,” Kelley said. Those laws have “opened up the door to interested lawmakers who might see what else, that used to seem off the table, could now be on the table.”

What educators should do

Measures like the Louisiana legislation and the state laws requiring schools to display “In God We Trust” may make some students and educators uncomfortable, especially if they don’t believe in God or adhere to a religion that follows the Ten Commandments, Kelley said.

Educators in states with such laws can still promote religious inclusivity and diversity without violating the law, Kelley said.

They might display or teach about other religious texts alongside the Ten Commandments or keep discussions about the Ten Commandments focused on their societal and political implications and avoid characterizing the document as a moral code.

It’s also important to be aware of a law’s details, Kelley said. For example, the Kansas law that requires schools to post “In God We Trust” didn’t specify how large the display needed to be.

“Some people taped up a dollar bill, which says ‘In God We Trust,’ in a way to comply with the law but not to do something they thought was dogmatic or ostracizing,” Kelley said.

The National Council for the Social Studies has resources for teaching about religion that may help teachers navigate these situations.

“There’s certainly a way to talk about religion in a civically minded or historic sense that’s not proselytizing,” Kelley said.

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