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Nine Louisiana families have already filed a lawsuit against a new Louisiana law that requires a poster-sized copy of the Bible's Ten Commandments to be displayed in every public school classroom, including colleges and universities. Their lawyers hope a judge will issue a temporary restraining order before the start of the 2024-2025 school year.

In an interview with Inside Higher EdDaniel Mach, director of the ACLU's religious liberty program, called the law “an egregious violation of religious freedom; school authorities cannot force students to have access to religious literature as a condition of attending public school. This is unfair and unconstitutional.”

The Louisiana law is just one of several recent moves by conservative politicians and education officials to inject Christian teachings into public education. Just this year, Oklahoma's school board mandated that public schools must teach Bible classes, and Texas introduced a new elementary school curriculum that includes Bible stories and scenes. In both cases, education officials argued that references to the Christian Bible are so widespread in culture and literature that it is beneficial for students to learn about it.

Meanwhile, in Louisiana, the lead sponsor of HB 71 said during a debate on the legislation that her goal was to “present God's law in the classroom so children can see what He says is right and what is wrong,” according to the lawsuit filed against the bill.

Higher education has largely been spared from the state's efforts to provide religious education in public schools, but Louisiana's law includes all 32 state colleges, universities and vocational schools in the state – although much of the rhetoric surrounding the law seems to focus on young children and how and what to teach them about morality and religion.

None of the state’s four higher education systems responded to Inside Higher Edfor comment on whether and how they are preparing to implement HB 71, which gives institutions until January 1, 2025, to publish scriptures.

40-year precedent

Mach said he is confident the lawsuit brought by the ACLU and three other organizations representing the plaintiffs will be successful, but experts say many factors could contribute to whether the law ultimately becomes law.

A 1980 Supreme Court ruling, Stone v. Graham, struck down a nearly identical law in Kentucky on the grounds that there was no secular purpose for displaying the Ten Commandments in public school classrooms. The Louisiana law attempts to circumvent that ruling by requiring institutions to display the Ten Commandments alongside a contextual statement that provides information about their history in public education and links to early textbooks that included them.

For this reason, Republican lawmakers have defended the bill in the media.

“Although it is a religious document, this document is also posted in over 180 places, including the Supreme Court of the United States of America. I would say [it] based on the laws upon which this country was founded,” Republican state Senator Adam Bass told KALB, a local television station in Baton Rouge.

Ira C. Lupu, F. Elwood and Eleanor Davis Professor of Law Emeritus at George Washington University, said the case will likely rest on that distinction.

“This is what the discussion will be: Does this whole thing have a secular purpose because it is based on a broader view of culture and history? Or is this just a pretext?” he said in an interview with Inside Higher Ed.

He noted that while the law outlines other historical documents that “[affirm] However, the “connection between civil society and God” – such as the Mayflower Treaty of 1620 – does not require that these documents be issued.

James W. Fraser, Professor of History and Education at New York University and author of Between Church and State: Religion and Public Education in a Multicultural America (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016) said the connection between the Ten Commandments and American public schools is tenuous at best.

“There is very little evidence that the Ten Commandments as such were posted in schools at any point after the Civil War, which is quite a long time ago. My basic analysis of that story is that it is nonsense,” he said. In higher education, “I know of no example — not even in religious colleges, not even before the 19th century — of the Ten Commandments being posted. It may have happened, but it was not the norm.”

Impact on higher education

Even if courts consider the Stone v. Graham precedent, there is a slim chance it would not apply to higher education because Kentucky's law only covers K-12 schools. A court could choose to uphold the law only for post-secondary institutions but strike it down for K-12 schools, Lupu said. In addition, concerns among college students about whether the document could be considered coercion to a particular belief system, which is unlawful under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, would be significantly reduced.

“In post-secondary education, the likelihood of being forced to believe that the Ten Commandments are God's truth and God's law is even lower than among children,” Lupu said.

An unintended consequence of the law, if implemented in colleges and universities, could be that professors would have academic freedom to discuss and criticize the Ten Commandments and classroom signage with their students, Lupu noted.

For example, a philosophy professor could stand in front of his class and say, “I think the idea that God commanded these things is nonsense… There is no God and I will make an argument for it. That would definitely be an expression of academic freedom,” he said.

Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, another organization representing plaintiffs in the lawsuit against HB 71, said she is not concerned that courts would separate K-12 and higher education when assessing the law's constitutionality.

Although the Supreme Court is particularly committed to protecting the religious freedoms of schoolchildren and their families, applying the law to college campuses would violate other religious freedoms, she said. For one thing, it would signal that the government favors one religion over others and uses taxpayer money for a faith that is not necessarily its own (though the law notes that schools that do not want to pay for the displays themselves can accept donations or signs).

Fraser, who is also pastor emeritus of Grace Church in Massachusetts, agreed that the bill is unlikely to pass.

“It's clearly just entitlement legislation,” he said. “I don't think it's meant to make a change; it's meant to make politicians more popular. Of course, I'm deeply offended as both a historian and a religious leader. The United States has succeeded by separating church and state.”

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