AP Photo/Allen G. Breed

Louisiana Advances Classroom Ten Commandments Display Bill Following SCOTUS Precedent

Public classrooms in Louisiana will be required to display the Ten Commandments if legislation known as House Bill 71 is passed into law. The bill, put forth by Republican state lawmakers Rep. Dodie Horton and Sen. Adam Bass, passed out of the House Committee on Education on Thursday.

Despite some concerns about its constitutional validity, Horton and Bass told committee members that they believed their proposed law would survive legal challenges. Similar attempts to enforce such displays in other states, such as Texas and South Carolina, have not succeeded in the past. However, the authors of HB 71 believe that the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Kennedy v. Bremerton case has opened new possibilities for such displays. 

Bass said,

Both Representative Horton and I believe it will withstand legal and judicial scrutiny, as well as this bill is the first of its kind since the fall of the Lemon law [sic]. We hope it will serve as an example to the rest of the country.

The 2022 ruling, which favored a high school football coach’s right to pray publicly after games, has been seen as a favorable precedent for religious displays in public spaces.

Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote for the 6-3 majority, that the clauses of the First Amendment

work in tandem. Where the Free Exercise Clause protects religious exercises, whether communicative or not, the Free Speech Clause provides overlapping protection for expressive religious activities.

During the committee meeting, Mississippi attorney Ronald Hackenberg, affiliated with the Pacific Justice Institute, provided legal insights supporting the bill. He noted that the Kennedy ruling marked a departure from the Lemon test. This three-part test was a previously used legal standard used to determine if a law or government act violates the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, ensuring that government assistance to religion is primarily secular, does not promote or inhibit religion, and avoids excessive entanglement between church and state. According to Hackenberg, this shift in judicial perspective indicates a changing framework regarding religious displays in public settings.

The bill is opposed by The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Louisiana, with advocacy strategist A’Niya Robinson arguing in an interview that the details of the Kennedy case don’t apply to the proposed legislation. Robinson described students as a captive audience under the proposed law and explained that the coach’s post-game prayer was not within his duties as a school employee, and students were not obligated to join in.

Robinson said,

One of the things that the framers of the Constitution had in mind when they came up with the First Amendment was that religious freedom only flourishes if people have breathing room to decide what religious beliefs, if any, that they want to follow.

House Bill 71 passed out of the committee on a 10-3 vote, with representatives crossing party lines in both directions. Republican Rep. Barbara Freiberg cast one of the no votes, highlighting her concern that the Ten Commandments was not a representation of all faiths. In a surprising move, Rep. Sylvia Taylor, D-Reserve, crossed party lines and joined the nine Republicans in support of the bill.

Horton has previously worked on religious display initiatives. Last year, along with Rep. Jack McFarland, she succeeded in passing a bill that mandates “In God We Trust” signs in every classroom, signed into law by Gov. John Bel Edwards.

Similar to her past proposal, House Bill 71 outlines requirements for displaying the Ten Commandments, specifying that they must be on a poster or framed document of at least 11 by 14 inches with a large, easily readable font. The bill gives schools the option to use their funds or accept donated versions for these displays.

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