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For What Purpose?

Last week the governor of Louisiana signed into law legislation requiring the Ten Commandments to be posted in all public school classrooms in the state, from kindergarten to colleges. Although the Governor stated that respect for the law starts with Moses, the first lawgiver, who got the law from God, the state has been generally careful to not cast this mandate as naked religiosity. The legislation itself focuses on the historical significance of the Ten Commandments, stating that the commandments are “foundational documents of our state and national government.” To further insulate the mandate from criticism, the cost of the posters will be provided through private donations, not state funds. Finally, the law also authorizes (although it does not mandate) other historical documents to be posted in the classroom, such as the Mayflower Compact, the Declaration of Independence, and the Northwest Ordinance.

From a legal perspective, this would seem to be a fairly simple case. It has been well-settled law for almost 45 years that this type of legislation is violative of the Establishment Clause of the Bill of Rights. The Supreme Court decided in the case of Stone v. Graham, when looking at a similar piece of legislation in Kentucky, that the Ten Commandments cannot be separated from their religious meaning and, as such, to post them in elementary school classrooms under the imprimatur of the state was unconstitutional. One would be led to believe that this decision would be controlling on the current set of circumstances, except for one small problem—the makeup of the Court today is very different from the makeup of the Court then. This is certainly true in terms of the political beliefs of the individuals, but this is also true pertaining to the amount of respect this Court is willing to give to prior precedent. In short—this Court does not care that the question has been settled law since 1980. As the Court showed in Dobbs, it is more than willing to overturn major precedent and upend the system of rights that protects the powerless and the few against the overreach of the powerful and the many. Dobbs was the first major evidence of this Court’s modus operandi. The Court is now in the throes of originalist legal analysis. If a party cannot prove that the founders intended for a particular right to be protected, it will no longer receive this Court’s protection. Not only does that mean we may now be living in a society that would allow this type of naked religiosity in public school classrooms, but we could also be living in a society where “separation of church and state,” (a phrase found nowhere in the Constitution) could be done away with as a guiding principle in our Religion Clause analysis.

While the situation is certainly dire from a legal perspective, there is still a religious question to consider. What exactly is the purpose or utility of mandating the posting of the Ten Commandments in public school classrooms? The proponents of this law would be hard-pressed to convince anyone that this is about the historicity of the Ten Commandments and its effect on American society. If they really cared about that they would mandate the teaching of the commandments as part of the curriculum. It is also difficult to envision a world where either students or anyone else who encounters these posters is suddenly going to have a religious epiphany. So it is doubtful that Christians are supporting this legislation for is missional appeal. In fact, it seems easier to prove that this is the type of crusade which runs counter to the Christian ethos. For example, hanging the Ten Commandments in these classrooms seems to violate the Golden Rule, unless you believe that the Christian proponents of this legislation would also support the posting of passages from the Qur’an as well.

Instead, it appears that these Christians are seeking to strike a blow for Christianity in the midst of this seemingly godless society and realize they must strike now while the legal and political environment is in their favor. This type of legislation feels like a win and brings comfort to a segment of Christianity that believes things were better back in the days when the Ten Commandments hung in classrooms. Such legal cases seem to be an attempt to once again project a façade of Christianity over our society, a return to the seeming religiosity of some long-ago day that never really existed.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

About the author

Jason Hines is an assistant professor in the Department of Healthcare Administration at AdventHealth University. He has a PhD in religion, politics, and society from the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University, an MA in religion from the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University, a JD from Harvard Law School, and a BA in political science from the University of Connecticut. He blogs about religious liberty and other issues at More from Jason Hines.
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