Louisiana's latest bill requiring the display of biblical texts in classrooms is the most recent to push the boundaries of faith in public schools

Louisiana is not any stranger to controversy over religion in schools. In 2023, it joined almost 20 states The require or allow Officials in public schools to display the national motto “In God We Trust.”

Now the Bayou State could possibly be the primary state within the country to require the Ten Commandments to be displayed in classrooms at public schools, colleges and universities.

The legislature agreed Bill No. 71 on May 28, 2024, although Governor Jeff Landry has not yet signed it into law. The bill would require officials in public schools, including colleges and universities, to display a selected version of the Ten Commandments. The text is comparable to the King James translation of the Bible is utilized in many Protestant churches.

Officials must publish a context statement highlighting the role of the Ten Commandments in American history and can also display the Mayflower Treaty of the Pilgrimsthe Declaration of Independence and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787a federal law to settle the frontier – and the primary congressional document to encourage the establishment of colleges.

One of the bill’s sponsors, State Senator J. Adam Bass, defended it, saying: its “purpose isn’t exclusively religious.” He told his colleagues in Parliament that the Ten Commandments were important because of their “historical significance, as they are only one among many documents that represent the history of our country and the foundations of our legal system.”

As someone who teaches and researches religious and academic lawI feel the bill is problematic. It is prone to end in litigation at a time when the Supreme Court's views on religion and government are changing.

As the Supreme Court has previously ruled

Legal disputes over the Ten Commandments are nothing latest. More than 40 years ago, in Stone vs GrahamThe Supreme Court struck down a Kentucky state law that required the Ten Commandments to be displayed in classrooms.

The court justified this by stating that the underlying law the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment – “Congress shall make no law establishing a State religion” – since the mandate lacked a secular purpose.

A small note on posters describing the Ten Commandments as “the fundamental legal code of Western civilization and the common law of the United States” didn’t persuade the judges.

Twenty-five years later, the Supreme Court again considered cases involving the general public display of the Ten Commandments, but not in schools. This time, the justices reached mixed conclusions.

The first case occurred in Kentucky, where officials within the district courthouse put up a display board with texts corresponding to the Ten Commandments, the Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence and a Bible quote. In a 2005 ruling in McCreary County, Kentucky v. American Civil Liberties Union of KentuckyThe five-member majority agreed that the posting of the Ten Commandments violated the Establishment Clause, primarily since it lacked a secular legislative purpose.

On the identical day, nonetheless, the Supreme Court got here to the alternative conclusion in Van Orden vs Perrya case from Texas. The court upheld the constitutionality of a display of the Ten Commandments on the grounds of the State Capitol as one among 17 monuments and 21 historical markers commemorating Texas history.

Unlike the relatively latest exhibit in Kentucky, the one in Texas, which has existed for the reason that early Sixties, was built with private funds. The court allowed the Ten Commandments to stay because, despite their religious significance, the monument was a more passive display than the one in Stone: it covered 22 acres and was not attached to the courthouse door.

In the background rises the dome of a white, richly decorated building, in the foreground stands a grey monument with writing.
The 1.5 meter high stone slab with the Ten Commandments near the Texas State Capitol. A lawsuit against the depiction made it to the Supreme Court.
AP Photo/Harry Cabluck

Louisiana law

Louisiana's bill would require public school officials to hold framed copies of the Ten Commandments in all public school classrooms. The posters have to be not less than 11 by 14 inches and printed in a big, easy-to-read font. The proposal allows officials to buy these posters using state funds, but doesn’t require it. The posters will also be purchased as a donation or with donor funds.

The bill's writer, state Rep. Dodie Horton, previously sponsored a Louisiana law that might require public school classrooms to display an indication reading “In God We Trust.”

In her defense of the Ten Commandments proposal, she said that honors the country's religious origins.

“The Ten Commandments are the basis of all laws in Louisiana,” she said told his MPs“And given all the crap our children are exposed to in classrooms today, it is imperative that we restore the Ten Commandments to a prominent position.”

In justifying the bill, Horton referred to Kennedy v. Bremerton School Districta 2022 Supreme Court decision by which the justices ruled that education officials couldn’t prevent a football coach from praying on the sphere at the top of games because he was engaging in a private religious practice protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution.

“The landscape has changed,” she said.

New border

This is indeed the case.

For a long time, the Supreme Court used a set of criteria that were also known as the Lemon vs. Kurtzman test to find out whether a government motion violates the Establishment Clause. Under this test, a government motion or policy that conflicts with religion must meet three criteria. A policy will need to have a secular legislative purpose; its primary or principal effect must not promote religion; and it must not end in excessive entanglements between government and spiritual officials.

Another test that the Supreme Court has sometimes applied comes from Lynch vs Donnelly In 1984, it declared invalid government measures that appeared to support religions.

However, the vast majority of the present Court has abandoned each the Lemon and Endorsement tests. In the bulk opinion in Kennedy v. Bremerton, Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote that “the Establishment Clause have to be interpreted by “referring to historical practices and understandings.'” He added that the court “abandoned Lemon and its endorsement test offshoot way back.”

What this latest standard means stays to be seen.

In my opinion, the supporters of the bill Trust in Kennedy is incorrect. This decision affirmed voluntary, private prayer, not the mandatory posting of spiritual statements, and in doing so ignored the beliefs of many students.

More than 80 years ago, in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette The Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that students can’t be forced to take part in the salute to the American flag, including the words “under God” within the Pledge of Allegiance, if it violates their religious beliefs.

Under the brand new Louisiana law, students aren’t any longer required to recite the Ten Commandments. But given their clearly religious message, I imagine Bill No. 71 faces a dubious future if it comes into force.

image credit : theconversation.com