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Louisiana’s Ten Commandments Law Signals a Broader Christian Agenda

The crowd at Our Lady of Fatima Catholic School in Lafayette, La., applauded Gov. Jeff Landry as he signed bill after bill this week on public education in the state, making it clear he believed God was guiding his hand.

One new law requires that transgender students be addressed by the pronouns for the gender on their birth certificates (“God gives us our mark,” he said). Another allows public schools to employ chaplains (“a great step for expanding faith in public schools”).

Then he signed into law a mandate that the Ten Commandments be hung in every public classroom, demonstrating a new willingness for Louisiana to go where other states have not. Last month, Louisiana also became the first state to classify abortion pills as dangerous controlled substances.

“We don’t quit,” Mr. Landry, a Republican, said at the signing ceremony.

Taken together, the measures have signaled the ambition of the governor and the Republican-led Legislature to be at the forefront of a growing national movement to create and interpret laws according to a particular conservative Christian worldview. And Mr. Landry, a Catholic who has been vocal about his faith’s influence in shaping his politics, wants to lead the charge.

“Christian conservatives in this state have been a force for a very long time,” said Robert Hogan, a political science professor at Louisiana State University. “They view him as a champion of their cause, and this consolidates that.”

Republicans have controlled the State Legislature for more than a decade, and the party gained a supermajority last year. The difference this session has been in the governor’s office. For eight years, Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, used his veto powers to thwart the Republicans’ agenda. Now, in Mr. Landry, they have a partner.

When Mr. Landry, who previously served two terms as the state attorney general, won the governorship last fall, it was widely expected that Louisiana would veer to the right. As attorney general, Mr. Landry had positioned himself as a fierce champion of conservative causes, defending the state’s ban on abortions and challenging Mr. Edwards’s authority to order businesses, schools and churches to close during the coronavirus pandemic.

For conservative lawmakers, part of the legislative agenda this year was about playing catch-up, passing bills similar to those that had already been enacted in other Republican-led states. Then, they pushed further.

The Ten Commandments law, in particular, was a significant victory because it was the first such mandate to be passed in the country in more than 40 years. Lawmakers in Oklahoma, Mississippi and West Virginia, all controlled by Republicans, introduced similar bills this year, but none of them passed.

In Arizona, the Republican-controlled Legislature did pass a bill that would permit, but not require, teachers to display the Ten Commandments in classrooms. But Gov. Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, vetoed the bill. A similar bill in Georgia did not make it out of the legislature.

Dodie Horton, the state representative who sponsored the Louisiana bill, said that having the commandments posted would allow students to “look up and see what God says is right and what he says is wrong.”

Supporters of the Louisiana law now hope that other states will follow its example.

Ms. Horton, a Republican, is a member of the National Association of Christian Lawmakers, a group formed in 2020 to advance explicitly Christian values and legislation among elected officials. The group is working to adopt her bill as one of its pieces of model legislation, so that members in other states can push through similar laws.

A poll about religion in schools, conducted last year by The Associated Press and NORC, a nonpartisan research institution at the University of Chicago, showed a country split over the influence of religion in what children are taught in public schools. Among those surveyed, 37 percent said there was too little religion, 31 percent said there was the right amount, and 31 percent said there was too much.

Heather L. Weaver, a senior staff attorney with the Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief at the American Civil Liberties Union, said she would not be surprised if next year’s state legislative sessions took up a “huge influx” of bills rooted in conservative Christian ideas. She pointed to Louisiana as a leader in the movement.

The Christian political movement has been evident in debates across the country over transgender rights, school curriculums, in vitro fertilization and abortion. In Arizona, during the fight over an abortion ban from 1864, the speaker of the House, Ben Toma, told The New York Times in April that “all of our laws are actually based on, what, the Ten Commandments and the Book of Genesis, which are thousands of years ago.”

It is an argument that has been repeated by supporters of the Ten Commandments law in Louisiana, who contend that the commandments are a historical document as well as a religious text.

“This is all born of the leftist culture war tearing down the fabric of the country, and we are saying, ‘Enough,’” said Jason Rapert, founder of the National Association of Christian Lawmakers and a former state senator in Arkansas. “We are going to try to rebuild the foundation of this country.”

Mr. Rapert pointed to the chaplain bill that Mr. Landry signed this week. Mr. Rapert’s group coordinated with legislators in Florida and Texas to pass similar bills over the past year.

The trend has alarmed civil liberties groups and activists seeking to keep religious influence out of government.

Politicians in Louisiana “are not only passing a series of laws that infuse Christianity into public schools and divert public funds to private religious schools,” said Rachel Laser, chief executive of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, “they’re bragging about their goal of creating a Christian nation.”

The vigor among Louisiana conservatives came after years of frustration that accumulated during Mr. Edwards’s tenure as governor.

Though a Democrat in a heavily Republican state, he was elected in Louisiana because he was on many counts a conservative, with his strong opposition to abortion and support of gun rights. Still, he was a frequent obstacle on other issues that were important to conservatives, like limits on gender expression in schools and banning Covid vaccine requirements.

A few weeks into his term as governor, Mr. Landry called a special legislative session to undo an overhaul of the criminal justice system that had been one of Mr. Edwards’s signature achievements: the Louisiana Justice Reinvestment Act, a bipartisan compromise reached in 2017 to reduce the state’s high incarceration rates through shorter sentences and increased opportunities for parole.

A law Mr. Landry signed last month classifying two abortion drugs — mifepristone and misoprostol — as Schedule IV drugs, a category of medicines that have some potential for abuse or dependence, would make possession of them without a prescription a crime punishable by prison time and thousands of dollars in fines.

The Ten Commandments law has been condemned as unconstitutional. Groups including the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana and Ms. Laser’s organization have said they would challenge the law in court. “Politicians have no business imposing their preferred religious doctrine on students and families in public schools,” those groups said in a statement.

Supporters of the legislation expected the challenge, and even considered it part of their plan.

The Louisiana law is the first one on the issue to be enacted since the Supreme Court struck down a Kentucky law in 1980 that mandated the display of the Ten Commandments in schools. But the current Supreme Court has become much more deferential to religious rights.

Some observers say the battle over the law could be as valuable politically as a favorable outcome would be, particularly for Mr. Landry, as his national profile grows.

“It’s a fight he wants, even if he loses it,” Professor Hogan said. “Maybe it’s even better if he loses it, if he demonstrates that he fights the good fight on it.”

Ruth Igielnik contributed research.

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