Ten Commandments law requiring display in public classrooms faces legal challenge

The Ten Commandments is featured in two tablets in front of the Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Cathedral in Charan, Saipan, Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.
The Ten Commandments is featured in two tablets in front of the Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Cathedral in Charan, Saipan, Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. | Getty Images/mtcurado

A group of secular legal organizations is suing Louisiana to stop a law passed this month that would make it the only state requiring public schools to display the Ten Commandments in classrooms.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed a legal complaint on Monday in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana on behalf of a religiously diverse group of individuals with minor children enrolled in Louisiana public schools. 

The defendants include Christian, Jewish, Unitarian and nonreligious parents.

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"There is no longstanding tradition of permanently displaying the Ten Commandments in public-school classrooms in Louisiana or the United States more generally. Indeed, for nearly half a century, it has been well settled that the First Amendment forbids public schools from posting the Ten Commandments in this manner," reads the complaint, in part.

"For these reasons, Plaintiffs seek a declaratory judgment that the Act is unconstitutional and preliminary and permanent injunctive relief to prevent Defendants from (i) implementing rules and regulations in accordance with the Act, (ii) otherwise seeking to enforce the Act, and (iii) displaying the Ten Commandments in any public-school classroom."

The Rev. Jeff Sims, a plaintiff affiliated with the mainline denomination Presbyterian Church (U.S.A),  believes "the government is intruding on deeply personal matters of religion."

"This law sends a contrary message of religious intolerance that one denomination or faith system is officially preferable to others, and that those who don't adhere to it are lesser in worth and status," stated Sims in a statement released by FFRF, a Wisconsin-based advocacy group. 

"As a pastor and father, I cannot, in good conscience, sit by silently while our political representatives usurp God's authority for themselves and trample our fundamental religious-freedom rights."

Last week, Louisiana Gov. Jeff Landry signed House Bill 71, which mandates that public school classrooms display a copy of the Ten Commandments that is at least 11 inches by 14 inches in size by next January. The bill also allows schools to display other historical documents, such as the Mayflower Compact, the Declaration of Independence and the Northwest Ordinance.

"If you want to respect the rule of law you've got to start from the original law given, which was Moses," said Landry at a signing ceremony last week.

As the legal groups threatened legal action last week, Louisiana Attorney General Liz Murrill championed the new law on social media, explaining that she would be honored to defend the legislation in court.

"The 10 Commandments are pretty simple (don't kill, steal, cheat on your wife), but they also are important to our country's foundations," she tweeted.

"Moses, who you may recall brought the 10 Commandments down from Mount Sinai, appears eight times in carvings that ring the United States Supreme Court Great Hall ceiling. I look forward to defending the law."

In 1980, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a 5-4 per curiam opinion in the Stone v. Graham ruling that Kentucky could not require public schools to display the Ten Commandments because it violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. 

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