Louisiana Requiring Display of Ten Commandments In All Public Schools Is Unconstitutional

Civil Rights Policy Brief #225 | By: Rod Maggay | June 10, 2024

Featured Photo: www.nbcnews.com

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Policy Summary: During the 2024 Regular Session of the Louisiana State Legislature House Bill No. 71 was introduced. The bill’s purpose is to require every elementary, secondary and post-secondary public school in the state and every non – public school that receives state funding to display prominently in each classroom a copy of the Ten Commandments.

The bill includes technical requirements regarding the display (size of poster, location of the text on the poster, size of font) and the commandments that are mandated to be listed as part of the commandment set.

Both houses of the Louisiana State Legislature have Republican majorities and House Bill No. 71 passed overwhelmingly in both houses. However, passage was not unanimous as a number of Democrats voted against the bill. Governor Jeff Landry, a Republican, has signaled that he supports the bill and intends to sign the bill when it reaches his desk. If the bill becomes law, Louisiana would become the first state in the country to require the display of the Ten Commandments in all of a state’s school. LEARN MORE

Policy Analysis: Louisiana House Bill No. 71 is part of a current, larger trend where states are trying to insert Christianity and religion into more aspects of public life. This is a dramatic departure from years past, even centuries past, where there has been an acknowledged separation of church and state. However, the Supreme Court’s turn to the right in recent years has resulted in a number of decisions that has eroded this wall of separation.

To begin, the Supreme Court has already decided in a decision that a state requiring the posting of the Ten Commandments in public schools is unconstitutional. In 1980 the Supreme Court decided Stone v. Graham. That case specifically held under the Lemon v. Kurtzman test that Kentucky could not require all of the schools in its state to post the Ten Commandments because the legislature did not put forth a secular legislative purpose. While having a copy of the Ten Commandments on the wall was not used to indoctrinate or instruct children, the Court held their presence on the wall was an endorsement of religion and therefore unconstitutional under the First Amendment since Kentucky made the presence of the Commandments on the classroom wall mandatory.

If the issue has already been decided unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, why did Louisiana introduce a bill to do exactly what the Supreme Court already said was prohibited?

Religious conservatives, evangelicals and right wing religious figures have been quietly working to try and introduce more religion, specifically Christianity, into civic public life. Their efforts got a tremendous boost with the election of Donald J. Trump to the presidency in 2016 and his selection of three Supreme Court justices during his one term. His appointments to the Court shifted a previous 5-4 liberal majority into a 6-3 conservative majority that is more accommodating to religious positions. With this shift, the Supreme Court has been able to issue decisions that have made it easier for religious groups to sidestep the premise of a separation of church and state. Now taxes can be used for private religious schools, religion can be invoked to discriminate against LGBQT+ persons and employees of the state can now demonstrate their faith in a more public manner even when they are publically representing their state sanctioned workplace. These current positions would likely have never been allowed had the Court not changed to a more ideologically conservative court.

The situation in Louisiana is part of this larger trend but also hints at what the legislators behind the bill might want long – term. The legislators likely knew that their bill was unconstitutional. But by passing the bill, they were probably thinking that if the bill is challenged then they could bring the battle to the appeals process and eventually the Supreme Court a few years down the road. If the composition of the Court holds for the next few years, then these legislators will likely see an appeal that will be heard by a Court that is sympathetic to their cause. And once before the Court, they will then have an opportunity to ask for a reversal of the 1980 Stone v. Graham decision. And based on what has happened in recent years, it is not a stretch to think that the high court will overturn the rule prohibiting the mandatory display of the Ten Commandments in all public schools. The danger is not only to our secular Constitution but to non – Christian students – Jewish, Muslim, or no – faith – who face the prospect of attending classes where they could feel excluded because a state legislature has decided that the Christian faith is the preferred faith. Ordinary people would no longer have their religious beliefs chosen for them but by a state legislature which is likely what the Founding Fathers did not want for this country. This is a dangerous road for our country to be going down. LEARN MORE

Engagement Resources

  • The Hill – newsgroup article explaining the many versions of the Ten Commandments and why there will be difficulty and discord when choosing which version to display.
  • Justia – legal website with text of 1980 Supreme Court decision Stone v. Graham.

This brief was compiled by Rod Maggay. If you have comments or want to add the name of your organization to this brief, please contact rodwood@email.com.

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