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How about actually teaching them?

Putting the Ten Commandments on the classroom wall should be just the start

Jeff Landry signs education bills on June 19 at Our Lady of Fatima Catholic School in Lafayette, La. Associated Press/Photo by Brad Bowie/The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate

How about actually teaching them?
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The Ten Commandments have long been understood as articulating central religious and moral duties accepted by almost everyone (at least until recently) in Western civilization. They are also considered a core foundation of Western jurisprudence. One would think that even an ardent atheist wouldn’t object to students being exposed to, and even perhaps even being taught about, this important text.

Earlier this week, Louisiana Gov. Jeff Landry signed into law a bill requiring poster-size displays of the Ten Commandments to be placed in all public school classrooms. This is weak sauce. The state should instead require the Ten Commandments to be posted in all classrooms and taught as one of the most important documents of Western civilization.

As non-controversial as Louisiana’s law should be, groups dedicated to scrubbing religion from the public square object to it. Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Freedom From Religion Foundation contend that this statute violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. Supreme Court justices might agree—if they continued to interpret the Establishment Clause as they did in the 1960s through the early ’80s.

In Stone v. Graham (1980) the Supreme Court found a virtually identical Kentucky statute to violate the Establishment Clause. But it did so by using a discredited test for interpreting this constitutional protection. The test, appropriately known as the “Lemon Test,” was mostly ignored by justices for the last 30 years and was clearly repudiated by the court in Kennedy v. Bremerton (2022).

Instead of relying on this flawed analytical test, justices have instead turned to what America’s founders understood the Establishment Clause to prohibit and and looked at whether practices are, in Chief Justice Warren Burger’s words, “deeply embedded in the history and tradition of this country.”

Approximately 25 years after Stone v. Graham, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case challenging the constitutionality of a massive granite monument of the Ten Commandments on the Texas Statehouse grounds. Justices found the monument, which contains the same version of the Ten Commandments that will appear in Louisiana classrooms, to be constitutional.

More recently, justices considered the constitutionality of an “immense Latin cross” on public land in Bladensburg, Md. By a vote of 7-2, they held that it did not violate the First Amendment. Although the case involved a cross, in his majority opinion Justice Alito observed that:

For believing Jews and Christians, the Ten Commandments are the word of God handed down to Moses on Mount Sinai, but the image of the Ten Commandments has also been used to convey other meanings. They have historical significance as one of the foundations of our legal system, and for largely that reason, they are depicted in the marble frieze in our courtroom and in other prominent public buildings in our Nation’s capital.

There is a long history and tradition of displaying the Ten Commandments on public property, but is there is an even longer history and tradition of students being taught about them.

In the mid-20th century, E.J. Ruegemer, a Minnesota judge, became concerned with what he perceived to be the rise of juvenile delinquency in the United States. He believed that “if troubled youths were exposed to one of mankind’s earliest and long-lasting codes of conduct, those youths might be less inclined to break the law.” He formed a committee “consisting of fellow judges, lawyers, various city officials, and clergy of several faiths” to develop a “version of the Ten Commandments which was not identifiable to any particular religious group.”

Ruegemer eventually partnered with Cecil B. DeMille and the Fraternal Order of Eagles to help place granite monuments inscribed with the Ten Commandments throughout the United States. Many of these monuments were placed on public property, including the Texas State House grounds. At least 106 of them are still standing.

There is a long history and tradition of displaying the Ten Commandments on public property, but is there is an even longer history and tradition of students being taught about them. For instance, they are prominently featured in early American textbooks including the New England Primer, McGuffey’s Readers, and Noah Webster’s The America Spelling Book.

Even at the height of its separationist jurisprudence, the Supreme Court held that it is appropriate to teach about religion in public schools. It is constitutionally permissible for Louisiana to post copies of the Ten Commandments in public schools, although rather than permanently posting them I would suggest posting them for a month each year and then rotating other documents such as the Mayflower Compact, the Declaration of Independence, the Northwest Ordinance, and the Bill of Rights. More importantly, the state should go further and require that school children be taught about these important texts.

Mark David Hall

Mark David Hall is a professor in Regent University’s Robertson School of Government and a senior fellow at the Center for Religion, Culture, and Democracy. He is the author of Who’s Afraid of Christian Nationalism? Why Christian Nationalism is Not a Threat to American Democracy or the Church.

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