In a disturbing yet not exactly surprising move, Republicans in the Texas statehouse have taken the first steps toward passing three bills that inject religion into public schools. One requires public schools to display “in a conspicuous place” the Ten Commandments in every classroom. Another measure will allow schools to require prayer and Bible reading time each school day for students and employees who give their consent to participate.
A third bill would ensure school employees the right to “engage in religious speech or prayer while on duty.”
It’s not the first effort by Texas Republicans to inject religion into public schools. In 2021, the state passed a law requiring schools to display donated “In God we trust” signs.
And if you think these bills don’t have a shot at passing muster in the U.S. Supreme Court (should they be appealed on constitutional grounds), guess again.
Texas lawmakers noted that the Supreme Court paved the way for these bills after it sided with Joe Kennedy, the high school football coach in Washington state who was fired for praying at football games. The court ruled that Kennedy was praying as a private citizen, not as an employee of the district.
Know who represented that coach? The First Liberty Institute, the organization that brought us Matthew Kacsmaryk, the federal judge in Texas who lit the legal fuse to ban the abortion medication mifepristone from the marketplace.
How delightfully incestuous.
Texas state Sen. Phil King, author of Senate Bill 1515, said the Ten Commandments are part of American heritage and it’s time to bring them back into the classroom.
I just checked the Constitution. I didn’t find a single mention of the Ten Commandments. Meanwhile, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott wants to pardon a man convicted of murder. (Might wanna check that Sixth Commandment, Governor.)
In a statement, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said that the bills are a win for religious freedom in Texas. “I will never stop fighting for religious liberty in Texas,” the Republican’s statement said. “Allowing the Ten Commandments and prayer back into our public schools is one step we can take to make sure that all Texans have the right to freely express their sincerely held religious beliefs.”
I thought that was called “church.”
Shoving the Ten Commandments in the face of all children isn’t what I’d call “religious liberty.” While students who don’t give consent don’t have to participate in prayer and Bible readings, it’s not like they won’t be aware of it, perhaps intimidated and influenced by peer pressure all too common among school kids.
Indeed, the First Commandment is straight out of Exodus and Deuteronomy, two books from the Old Testament. It reads: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.”
Maybe some of those kids will bring a Muslim prayer rug to class. Let’s see what happens when an imam requests to lead a classroom in the midday call to prayer. You can hand out the prayer rugs and point the students in the direction of Mecca. Or perhaps we can have a rabbi lead students in readings from the five books of the Jewish Pentateuch.
I’m also wondering which version of the Ten Commandments they’re posting? Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879 or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912? (That’s a reference to an Emo Philips joke, in case you’re wondering.)
That still doesn’t answer my question to the Texas Republicans on which version they want.
The Ten Commandments, of course, are a part of Jewish heritage known as the Decalogue, but even within that religion, the precepts and their ordering are slightly different in the Medieval Roman and Greek Orthodox traditions.
I don’t expect Sen. King or any other lawmaker in Texas to respond to my query. It’s too complicated for them to answer and, besides, they seem to have little interest in history. Any history other than their own interpretation of it.
Case in point: In a statement, one fellow state Republican called the separation of church and state a “false doctrine” and tweeted, “Our schools are not God-free zones.”
Yeah, well, your schools aren’t Constitution-free zones, either.
How about these lawmakers spend more time seeing what children can learn from a school rather than focusing on what they can force the kids to learn?
Sorry, we can’t do that either. In Texas, religious indoctrination is OK, but telling the truth about the country’s racist past and present is out.
Oh, and for what it’s worth, the nation’s original motto was “E pluribus unum” or “Out of many, one.” “In God we trust” was adopted by Congress in 1956 when lawmakers decided this would somehow show those godless commies in Soviet Russia a thing or two.
There is absolutely no reason for public schools to compel children to engage in organized religious activities. That’s what Sunday school and parents are for.
Imagine the outrage of a bill proposing to teach history and science lessons at church on Sunday and post, “in a conspicuous place,” the Constitution in every church with the First Amendment in bold type. Let’s have a bill requiring Sunday schools to include the Bill of Rights in their curriculum.
Ten Commandments, Ten Amendments. Seems fair.
How about a big banner that says: “Read your Darwin?”
Two legal principles are in play here. The obvious one is the First Amendment, which states in its first clause, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” The Supreme Court has traditionally interpreted that to mean government actions must have a “secular purpose.”
Given these are the very first words in the Bill of Rights, the nation’s founding legal document, the Framers clearly put a premium on this separation.
Some legal background:
The Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly against state laws and local ordinances that violate the dictates of the 14th Amendment. The states must guarantee the individual protections prescribed in our first 10 amendments, you know, like that conceit about religion. Simply put: Just like the federal government, the states can “make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”
Several cases would support a lawsuit against the Texas measures.
Does a Ten Commandments monument on the grounds of a state capitol violate the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, which barred the government from passing laws “respecting an establishment of religion”?
No, said the justices in 2005 in Van Orden v. Perry. In a 5-4 decision, the court held that a passive monument conveying religious content was not an act of the state-endorsed religion and, thus, did not violate the Establishment Clause.
However, in a 1980 case, Stone v. Graham, the court ruled that posting the Ten Commandments in public school classrooms violated the Establishment Clause of the Constitution. In a 5-to-4 decision, the court found that (A) the posting of the Commandments “had no secular legislative purpose” and (B) was “plainly religious in nature.”
In a 2005 case, McCreary County, Kentucky, v. ACLU, the justices ruled, 5-4, that displaying framed copies of the Ten Commandments in courthouses and public schools violated the Establishment Clause because their purpose had been to advance religion.
And in the landmark case of Engel v. Vitale in 1962, the court ruled that New York’s practice of beginning school days with a prayer drafted by the state Board of Regents violated the Establishment Clause. It was a voluntary prayer, by the way, but the court said nope, whether or not students were given the option of participating in the prayer, it still violated the 14th Amendment’s Establishment Clause.
All of this suggests that Texas is on shaky constitutional grounds. But with the current 6-3 conservative makeup of the Supreme Court, any assumption a reasonable person might make is also on shaky ground.
It raises an annoying question: Do the Texas lawmakers not know what’s in the United States Constitution?
Take Texas state Sen. Mayes Middleton (R-Galveston), who authored one of the Texas bills (Senate Bill 1396) and called the separation of church and state a “false doctrine.” (And please don’t bring up Rep. Lauren Boebert; we already know the Colorado Republican is a vain and vacuous pathogen of ignorance.) Does the senator not know that of the 13 original Colonies, 12 were founded as refuges from religious persecution of one kind or another. (Only Georgia, being a debtor’s colony, was not.) And Rhode Island was founded by a guy fleeing the Pilgrims because after they’d fled the persecution in Britain, they decided to do their own persecuting once they got here and were intolerant of anybody who didn’t agree with them. That’s why Roger Williams established Providence.
If the Framers, who were men of great education (apparently, unlike our Texas lawmakers) had wanted to establish a particular religion, they certainly would’ve said it in no uncertain terms.
So you can’t look at the original 13 Colonies and contend that the Framers intended for anything but a government expressly providing for religious liberty and a separation between civil and ecclesiastical authority.
Never mind the Founding Fathers’ religious convictions (or lack thereof). Yes, some were pious; some were not. Some prayed; others had no use for it. But together, they agreed to keep religion and state separate, which is why our founding documents are devoid of religious instruction. Why do we find that so difficult to understand?
Are the Texas lawmakers that ignorant? Or do they just plain not give a damn?
I’m not even sure they know what’s in the Bible.
Render unto Caesar, as the good book says. Or shall we recall the parable of the two men who went to pray? In a front pew, one prays loudly and boastfully. The other is humble, head bowed, voice silent; he’s not even inside the temple.
“For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 14:1 for those Texas Bible thumpers out there.)
How is this lesson missed? It’s in the very handbook of the people wanting to force religion into the public school system — their religion, of course. Not yours.
Shall we be the self-important Pharisee (whom Jesus called hypocrites) or the self-effacing publican?
Christians really should try to be more Christian and less right-wing Republican.
The real question here, one I’ve never had successfully answered: Why must we mix religion with politics at all? You follow your beliefs, I’ll follow mine — in private. If you wish to be a missionary for your beliefs, fine. I would expect the same courtesy if I sought to be a missionary for my religious beliefs (or lack thereof). But neither of us should use the government to advance those interests. That is precisely what the First Amendment prohibits.
What the Texas lawmakers are doing is religionist mission creep. Beyond any contempt for church-state separation, their efforts also shamelessly disrespect a parent’s right to direct the religious or non-religious upbringing of their children. Yet the lawmakers in Texas dare to claim this is about religious student freedom.
Why can’t religionists leave people alone? Religion is far too personal for anyone to come along and tell you how to worship. If your belief comforts you, enjoy it, and let others enjoy theirs. Back when houses of worship taught religion, parents who wanted more for their children sent them to parochial schools for religious instructions. Repeat: Parents decided what was best for their children, not lawmakers. Isn’t this the battle conservatives are getting behind of late in all those shout-fest school board meetings?
Instead, freedom from religion is being shortchanged by freedom of religion. Both are essential to the First Amendment, but the undermining of the former will inevitably destroy the latter.
The problem with religion isn’t religion, it’s the religionist. The religious might do well to clean their own house before inviting others to come in.
Maybe we should pray that they do.