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Louisiana will face lawsuit over Ten Commandments school displays

By
Greg LaRose, Louisiana Illuminator, https://lailluminator.com

Four civil liberties groups will sue the state of Louisiana after Republican Gov. Jeff Landry signed a law Wednesday that calls for the Ten Commandments to be displayed in school classrooms. The new rule applies to any school that accepts state money, including colleges and universities.

The American Civil Liberties Union, its Louisiana chapter, Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the Freedom from Religion Foundation announced they intend to file a lawsuit to block enforcement of House Bill 71. The measure, authored by Rep. Dodie Horton, R-Haughton, requires the Ten Commandments be displayed in each classroom. The poster or framed document dimensions must be at least 11 inches by 14 inches.

Speaking at a Republican Party fundraiser in Tennessee over the weekend, Landry said he intended to sign the Ten Commandments bill into law, “and I can’t wait to be sued.”

The four groups bringing the lawsuit issued a joint statement that said, in part, the new law promotes specific religious beliefs to which many people in Louisiana do not subscribe.

“All students should feel safe and welcome in our public schools,” the statement said. “H.B. 71 would undermine this critical goal and prevent schools from providing an equal education to all students, regardless of faith. We will not allow Louisiana lawmakers to undermine these religious-freedom rights.”

Proponents of the legislation have argued it doesn’t promote a specific religion because it does not allow public dollars to be used to purchase the Ten Commandments displays. Instead, schools can accept donated posters or documents, and the law directs the Louisiana Department of Education to “identify appropriate resources to comply” with the display requirements and list his information on its website.

Horton also cast her proposal as a way to note the historical significance of the Ten Commandments and their role in American law.

A recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling has also given confidence to backers of the new law.

In 2022, justices ruled in favor of Joseph Kennedy, a Washington state high school football coach who was fired for praying at midfield after games and allowing students to join him. Kennedy got his job back after conservative justices prevailed in a 6-3 decision, saying the post game prayers do not amount to a school endorsement of Christianity.​  

Most important, according to supporters of the Ten Commandments law, the Kennedy decision did not rely on standards that have been applied since the 1971 case Lemon v. Kurtzman. Known as the Lemon test, the principles are used to determine whether a law or government violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which prohibits any law and government action from standing up an official state religion.

In the Kennedy case, conservative justices looked at the history of rulings on the Establishment Clause and interpreted what they said was the intent of the Constitution’s authors rather than rely on the Lemon test.

The ACLU and other plaintiffs in the anticipated lawsuit maintain Louisiana’s law violates the long-standing precedent from Stone v. Graham, a 1980 ruling from the Supreme Court that overturned a similar statute approved in Kentucky. Justices decided then that the First Amendment bars public schools from posting the Ten Commandments in classrooms.

Louisiana’s K-12 schools, colleges and universities have until Jan. 1 to meet the law’s requirements, although it doesn’t include penalties for noncompliance.

Greg LaRose has covered news for more than 30 years in Louisiana. Before coming to the Louisiana Illuminator, he was the chief investigative reporter for WDSU-TV in New Orleans. He previously led the government and politics team for The Times-Picayune | NOLA.com, and was editor in chief at New Orleans CityBusiness. Greg's other career stops include Tiger Rag, South Baton Rouge Journal, the Covington News Banner, Louisiana Radio Network and multiple radio stations.


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