First Amendment

Louisiana Parents Sue Over Law Mandating 10 Commandments Displays in Classrooms

"This is an obvious attempt to use our public schools to convert kids to Christianity. We live in a democracy, not a theocracy," one ACLU attorney tells Reason.


Last month, Louisiana Gov. Jeff Landry (R) signed a bill mandating that a copy of the Ten Commandments be displayed in all public school classrooms in Louisiana. The law, House Bill 71, requires that the religious scripture be displayed on a poster or frame sized at least 11 inches by 14 inches and in a "large, easily readable font." 

Apparently anticipating a First Amendment challenge to the mandatory religious text, lawmakers included several provisions that attempt to strengthen the law against a constitutional challenge. For example, the law prohibits schools from using taxpayer funds to finance the posters, instead directing them to accept private donations.

The law further directs schools to display a context document that describes "the history of the Ten Commandments in American Public Education." This requirement attempts to undermine the religious nature of the scripture, instead showing how the "historical role of the Ten Commandments accords with our nation's history and faithfully reflects the understanding of the founders of our nation with respect to the necessity of civic morality to a functional self-government."

While the text of the law attempts to dodge accusations that it prescribes public schools to display an openly Christian text in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, Louisiana lawmakers openly argued that the law would put religion in Louisiana schools.

"I really believe that we are lacking in direction. A lot of people, their children, are not attending churches or whatever," Rep. Sylvia Taylor (D–Laplace), a co-author and co-sponsor of the bill, said during a debate over the bill. "So what I'm saying is, we need to do something in the schools to bring people back to where they need to be." Another sponsor state Rep. Dodie Horton (R–Haughton) said that the bill "seeks to have a display of God's law in the classroom for children to see what He says is right and what He says is wrong."

Last week, a multifaith group of parents with children in Louisiana public schools filed a lawsuit, alleging that the law violates students' and parents' First Amendment rights.

The law "unconstitutionally pressures students into religious observance, veneration, and adoption of the state's favored religious scripture….It substantially interferes with and burdens the right of parents to direct their children's religious education and upbringing," the complaint reads,

"There is no longstanding tradition of permanently displaying the Ten Commandments in public-school classrooms in Louisiana or the United States more generally," the complaint states, further alleging that the historical context document required by the law includes many inaccuracies, including a fabricated quotation from James Madison in which the fourth president claimed that the future of the young United States was staked "upon the capacity of each of ourselves to govern ourselves according to the moral principles of the Ten Commandments."

By enforcing H.B. 71, Louisiana "will substantially burden the religious exercise of the Plaintiff parents and other parents who do not subscribe to the state-sanctioned version of the Ten Commandments," the complaint reads, "interfering with, conflicting with, and usurping their ability to direct their children's religious education and religious upbringing."

"Hundreds of thousands of kids are going to be required to see these displays every day in every classroom….Those who don't believe in the state's official religious doctrine will be to [sic] made to feel like outcasts who don't belong in their own school community," Heather Weaver, a senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union, tells Reason. "This is an obvious attempt to use our public schools to convert kids to Christianity. We live in a democracy, not a theocracy, and anyone who wants to keep it that way should care about stopping this law."