New Louisiana Law Requires Ten Commandments Be Displayed in All Classrooms

Louisiana is now the first state to mandate that the text be displayed at all public schools and colleges.
New Louisiana Law Requires Ten Commandments Be Displayed in All Classrooms
A Ten Commandments memorial rests in the lobby of the rotunda of the State Judicial Building in Montgomery, Ala., in 2022. (Gary Tramontina/Getty Images)
Bill Pan

Louisiana has become the first state to enact a law mandating that the Ten Commandments be prominently displayed at all public schools and colleges.

Under legislation that became law on June 19, Louisiana schools that receive state funds will have to display the Ten Commandments “in each building it uses and classroom in each school under its jurisdiction.”

The bill specifies that the text must be presented at the main focal point of a poster or framed document measuring at least 11 inches by 14 inches and printed in a “large and easily readable font.”

It also requires a 200-word “context statement” explaining that the Ten Commandments were “a prominent part of American public education for almost three centuries.”

According to the context statement, the Ten Commandments had been included in some of the most popular textbooks in U.S. history, published by prominent public education pioneers such as William McGuffey and Noah Webster.

For example, Webster’s “The American Spelling Book” contained the Ten Commandments and sold more than 100 million copies for use by public school children all across the nation. It was still available for use in U.S. public schools as recently as 1975.

The Republican-backed measure was approved by the Louisiana state Senate on a 30–8 margin on May 16. It reached Republican Gov. Jeff Landry’s desk after receiving a final House approval in a 79–16 vote on May 28.

The measure was spearheaded by Republican state Rep. Dodie Horton. Last year, she successfully led a legislative effort to require the national motto “In God We Trust” to be displayed in classrooms across the state.

While more than a dozen states have enacted laws mandating or explicitly allowing schools to display the phrase, the Louisiana law goes one step further to require signage in each individual classroom.

The Establishment Clause Debate

In 1980, a divided U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Kentucky law requiring public schools to display the Ten Commandments in every classroom, holding that the law signaled the government endorsement of “a sacred text in the Jewish and Christian faiths,” in violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

“If the posted copies of the Ten Commandments are to have any effect at all, it will be to induce the schoolchildren to read, meditate upon, perhaps to venerate and obey, the Commandments,” the high court’s 5–4 majority wrote at the time. “However desirable this might be as a matter of private devotion, it is not a permissible state objective under the Establishment Clause.”

In defense of her Ten Commandments measure, Ms. Horton highlighted the text’s historical significance, arguing that the bill honors its unique place in Louisiana’s history. In the law’s language, the Ten Commandments are described as “foundational documents of our state and national government.”

“The Ten Commandments are the basis of all laws in Louisiana,” she said on the House floor in April. “And given all the junk our children are exposed to in classrooms today, it’s imperative that we put the Ten Commandments back in a prominent position.

“It doesn’t preach a certain religion, but it definitely shows what a moral code that we all should live by is.”

Recent Establishment Clause Ruling

In recent years, the Supreme Court appears to have become more open to a less restrictive interpretation of the establishment clause while placing greater emphasis on the country’s history and tradition.

In the summer of 2022, the Supreme Court’s majority agreed with an argument similar to the one advanced by Ms. Horton when deciding a case concerning whether a Kentucky school district violated a high school football coach’s First Amendment rights by forbidding him to pray at the middle of the field immediately after each game.

In a 6–3 decision, the high court sided with the coach, who argued that his on-field, postgame prayer was the continuation of a “school tradition” that predated his tenure at the school. Justice Neil Gorsuch, writing for the majority, agreed with the coach’s argument, saying that the Establishment Clause must be interpreted by referencing historical practices and understandings.

“Learning how to tolerate speech or prayer of all kinds is part of learning how to live in a pluralistic society,” Justice Gorsuch wrote, adding that the school district cannot suppress an employee’s religious liberty for the sake of complying with the Establishment Clause, which was created to preserve religious liberty.

“In essence,” he wrote, “the District asks us to adopt the view that the only acceptable government role models for students are those who eschew any visible religious expression.”

“We are aware of no historically sound understanding of the Establishment Clause that begins to make it necessary for government to be hostile to religion in this way.”

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