In what seems to be a victory for Christian Nationalists, the Ten Commandments must now be displayed in Louisiana public classrooms. This law will be challenged, but its proponents are hoping that the Supreme Court will rule in its favor. Given the ideology and religious views of the majority of the court, this victory is all but assured.  

The 2022 Kennedy v. Bremerton School District ruling provides guidance here as the court ruled in favor of a high school football coach who was fired for praying on the field. The court decided that the prayer was private speech and hence protected. Meanwhile, Republicans in Florida are arguing that “in the classroom, the professor’s speech is the government’s speech…” when it is speech they do not like.  It would be interesting to see what they would say about professors praying in classrooms; I suspect that if it was a suitable Christian prayer, it would be considered private speech.

While I am not a legal scholar, there does seem to be an obvious difference between a coach engaging in a private prayer on the field and a state mandating that the Ten Commandments be displayed in all classrooms. If, for example, a teacher or professor wanted to carry a copy of the Ten Commandments to draw inspiration from before teaching or during committee meetings, that would obviously not present any issues. I, in fact, have a copy of the Ten Commandments in my Ethics class notes since I do a section on religion and ethics. In this context I am using the Ten Commandments as an example of religious ethics rather than proselytizing a specific faith in the classroom, since we are not in the indoctrination business. Coincidentally, this is a work around that proponents of the law have also attempted to use.

As the separation of church and state is well-established, proponents of the law need a narrative that will allow the Ten Commandments to be displayed while they can insist this is not the state promoting a religion. One approach is built on the same justification I use to cover the Ten Commandments in my class: the Ten Commandments are an important part of legal (and moral) history and hence should be included in the relevant lessons. I certainly would not think of teaching a basic ethics class without including them in a section on religious rules-based ethics. Likewise, my colleagues in religion and history would not think to exclude them from the relevant classes. But there are two obvious differences.

One is that academic coverage of the Ten Commandments does not require a state mandate that they be displayed in all classrooms. Providing them to the students in the text, PowerPoints or notes suffices. The second is that my colleagues and I are not, as I noted earlier, in the business of indoctrinating students. In fact, students routinely ask us what we think, since we are careful not to preach our own views. When discussing paper topics, I stress that they should argue for their position and not try to argue for what they think I might think. When grading, I take care to separate my view of their position from a fair assessment of the quality of their work. As I tell my students, people have gotten an A on papers arguing for positions I strongly disagree with, and others have done badly by arguing badly for positions I agree with. I never tell them these positions and stick to generalities.

The clever counter to this is that the law has an amendment that permits display of historical documents such as the Mayflower Compact, the Declaration of Independence and the Northwest Ordinance. Presumably the intent is to try to persuade people that the Ten Commandments is just being displayed as an historically important document and hence all the concerns about the separation of church and state are unfounded. But the obvious problem is that only the display of the Ten Commandments is mandated by law (and a specific version, at that). But even if the law required other documents to be displayed, it would still be reasonable to consider why the Ten Commandments and these other documents were being mandated for display. They did not, for example, mandate that specific content from mathematics, science, or English literature be displayed in classrooms, even those that are foundational. If they were really concerned that classrooms display important documents, they would have presumably included such content in the law.  But maybe that will be the next move to conceal their intentions.

Interestingly, this move does send an unintended message about the Ten Commandments. If we take seriously the argument that they are being displayed just because they are historically important and not for religious reasons, then the message to students is that that they are just historically important, on par with the Mayflower Compact, the Declaration of Independence and the Northwest Ordinance. They are perhaps not the word of God given to Moses by God.  As such, they should be subject to the same academic assessment as any other historical document and subject to the same criticism as any other legal works created by flawed humans for human purposes. The schools should also display other historically important documents, such as select quotes from Marxists, Muslims, Buddhists, socialists, atheists, anarchists, Satanists and others. After all, if it really is about displaying important documents, there are many that deserve a place alongside the Ten Commandments. But it is evident and obvious what the intent of the law is, and it has nothing to do with presenting students with historically important documents.