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Ten Commandments back in the classrooms


WORLD Radio - Ten Commandments back in the classrooms

Louisiana legislators carefully craft a law to put God’s law on posters in public schools

Rep. Dodie Horton during a Louisiana legislative session in Baton Rouge, La. Associated Press/Photo by Gerald Herbert

NICK EICHER, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: Louisiana’s new Ten Commandments law.

Last week, Louisiana became the first state in more than 40 years to require public schools and universities to display the Ten Commandments in every classroom.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Texas and Oklahoma recently tried and failed to pass similar bills.

Just yesterday, a group of plaintiffs including parents and organizations like the ACLU sued to block Louisiana’s law. So what motivated lawmakers in Baton Rouge to take on the challenge?

WORLD’s Senior Writer Kim Henderson has our story.

DODIE HORTON: Thank you Madam Chairman and Committee for allowing us to be here today…

KIM HENDERSON: This isn’t Louisiana State Rep. Dodie Horton’s first rodeo. But since her Ten Commandments bill passed, she’s been in the spotlight like never before.

HORTON: Never have I seen them so fearful of a change, you know, and being able to put the Ten Commandments back in the classroom, where they hung for almost three centuries.

The new law will require all public classrooms, kindergarten to college, to have a poster-size display of the Ten Commandments in large, easy-to-read font.

Critics say that violates the separation between church and state.

Horton believes they’re wrong. She points to one of our nation’s founding fathers, James Madison.

HORTON: And he said there is no better foundational truth than the Ten Commandments. It's distinct in our Constitution and our country, and some form of the Ten Commandments is in all statutes of law. And so you can't find a more historical and traditional document than the Ten Commandments.

Rep. Horton’s bill drew the support of the Louisiana Family Forum. Gene Mills is president of the group. He’s hopeful that recent Supreme Court decisions about faith in the public square give Louisiana’s law a chance to stand.

GENE MILLS: Everything heretofore has been in a “Says Who?” Court that says, “We say it.” Well, now you’ve got strict constructionists and textualists who say, “No, that's a matter of interpretation, and it's got to do with the Constitution as written in history as it actually occurred.”

The forum helped secure legal help for expertise as Horton and her team began to craft the text of the bill. Gene Mills has no qualms about stating their intention.

MILLS: We basically prepared for the challenge, because our goal wasn't a legislative success. It was to set precedent that would go to the U.S. Supreme Court and, under scrutiny, prevail.

But not everyone in Louisiana was cheering when Gov. Jeff Landry signed the bill into law. As a first-grade teacher in the Mandeville public school system, Mandy Donegan feels like she can’t talk about religion unless it comes up in the curriculum.

MANDY DONEGAN: You have to be very safe as a teacher. This year I had a student that didn't believe in holidays and birthdays, so being respectful of his beliefs and his parents’ beliefs, it's hard. Like my husband always says, it's like you're on a missionary field, but you can't say what your true mission is.

She fears the posters will lead to conversations about her faith, something that current Department of Education rules doesn't allow. As a Christian, she knows it’s hard to deal faithfully with students without saying words like sin and repentance. Will it just add something else to the teacher’s plate?

DONEGAN: One teacher might go on and say “Thou shalt not steal, is wrong.” But is one teacher gonna say that, “Oh, none of us has murdered anybody, but really if you hate your brother, you’ve murdered your brother.” So there’s that piece of my concern again: is it going to be biblical truth, or is it just going to be ten sentences on a wall?

But Gene Mills hopes this law will do more than put the Ten Commandments on a wall.

MILLS: The classroom is not intended to be a Sunday school, but it's not intended to be hostile to anybody who likes to look at authentic American history or the foundations of Western civilization.

It’s notable that the passage of the Ten Commandments law came just weeks after Louisiana lawmakers held a special session to deal with burgeoning crime in the state. One co-sponsor of the Commandments bill mentioned the need for a more structured society. Perhaps crime was on her mind.

SYLVIA TAYLOR: So what I’m saying is We need to do something in the schools to bring people back to where they need to be.

This is Rep. Sylvia Taylor, a 74-year-old Democrat who chose to announce her support of the bill during debates held April 4.

Audio here courtesy of the Louisiana House of Representatives.

TAYLOR: I know my beliefs in God. I don’t want to impose them on anybody else, but I think that what you’re proposing today is admirable. . . [16:23] and I’d like to co-author it also.

HORTON: I’d be honored.

Rep. Horton says the bipartisan support meant a lot. The rest of the process was smooth sailing, without any hiccups. But she knows legal battles are ahead.

HORTON: I grew up, and the Ten Commandments were always on the wall. And if someone objects to it, well, all I can say is, don't read it. Don't look at it. But with all the things our children face today, I think it's important for them to see there is a God, and He does have a standard.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Kim Henderson.

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