May 22, 2024

The Ten Commandments in Louisiana

Louisiana is about to enact a law mandating that the Ten Commandments—a specified version of them—be posted in every Louisiana school classroom. The proposed law even specifies a minimum size for the Ten Commandments classroom posters.

It should be obvious to any thinking American citizen that the proposed legislation violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Louisiana lawmakers argue that recent Supreme Court decisions have so weakened the wall of separation between church and state that their latest legislative fiat may survive judicial scrutiny. They have a point, but I hope they’re wrong. Surely, the proposed law is one “respecting an establishment of religion,” as the Ten Commandments are taken directly from a text sacred to Judaism and Christianity.

Dodie Horton, a representative from District 19 in northwest Louisiana argues: “Our laws are based on the Ten Commandments. In fact, without them, a lot of our laws would not exist.” This, of course, is pure poppycock. Our laws are no more based on the Ten Commandments than on Aesop’s Fables.

It is worth considering the Ten Commandments in light of our actual laws. The first four commandments are purely religious and therefore inappropriate in light of the Establishment Clause. They command that you should (1) have no god before the God of Israel, (2) not worship idols, (3) not curse using God’s name, and (4) keep the Sabbath holy. No U.S. laws are based upon these injunctions, nor should they be. Only the Fourth Commandment comes close. Though blue laws privileged Sunday, not the Jewish Sabbath, they are largely a thing of the past and have little support for their reintroduction.

Four commandments involve behavior about which the law is silent. Number 5 requires the honoring of one’s parents. Numbers 7, 9, and 10 enjoin abjuring adultery, bearing false witness against a neighbor, and coveting the property of others. Of course, bearing false witness is illicit in particular legal contexts but not in ordinary discourse.

In fact, only two commandments have any significant relation to American law at all. Number 6 prohibits murder, and number 8 prohibits theft. Such provisions have been part of virtually every legal and moral system for millennia and probably did not originate among the Israelites anyway.

Louisiana legislators argue that the Ten Commandments offer moral guidance, though guidance unlikely to be appreciated by atheist, Muslim, Sikhi, Jain, or other student religionists. And it may be tricky to explain idol worship or adultery to first graders or why non-Jews seem not to care about the Sabbath.

The Louisiana initiative is ill-conceived and, I pray to God, is destined to be struck down by the Supreme Court. If it is not, this country will be in even more trouble.

The proposed legislation follows a 2023 Louisiana law requiring “In God We Trust” to be displayed in every classroom. (Classrooms may run out of wall space if the legislature continues what is becoming a trend.) I have written about the motto elsewhere and will merely say here that the sentiment that has become our nation’s official motto is, at best, hypocritical.

One final aside: If I were allowed to post Christian propaganda in school classrooms, it would be Jesus’s admonition to love God and one’s neighbor. Or, on second thought, just

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