Louisiana’s public classrooms must display Ten Commandments; federal lawsuit ensues

Photo: George Bannister

Louisiana’s governor signed legislation requiring all public classrooms in the state to display the Ten Commandments, making Louisiana the first state to pass such a requirement. The move led to an immediate backlash, with many concerned about the implications for the separation of church and state. 

Key Players

Gov. Jeff Landry (R), who assumed office in January 2024, signed legislation requiring that every public classroom in the state display the Ten Commandments. 

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting the civil liberties of all. 

Further Details

In May 2024, House Bill 71, which requires Louisiana public schools to display the Ten Commandments in all classrooms, passed in the state Senate by 30-8 and in the House of Representatives by 79-16 vote. On June 19, Landry signed the bill into law. 

Specifically, the law stipulates that schools, from kindergartens to universities, that receive state funding must present the Ten Commandments “on a poster or framed document that is at least eleven inches by fourteen inches” in classrooms. “The text of the Ten Commandments shall be the central focus of the poster or framed document and shall be printed in a large, easily readable font.” 

Before Landry signed the bill into law, the national ACLU, the ACLU of Louisiana, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and the Freedom from Religion Foundation, issued a joint statement expressing deep concern over the legislation. 

“This bill is unconstitutional,” the groups stated. “The state may not require public schools to display the Ten Commandments in classrooms. Many faith-based and civil-rights organizations oppose this measure because it violates students’ and families’ fundamental right to religious freedom. We are closely monitoring this situation and urge Louisianans to let the governor know that he should veto this bill. Politicians should not be forcing religious scripture on students. Our public schools are not Sunday schools, and students of all faiths — or no faith — should feel welcome in them.”

Moreover, in the 1980 Supreme Court case Stone v. Graham, the justices found that a Kentucky law similar to that of Louisiana violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment, which states that Congress “shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”

Aware that lawsuits against the new law were likely, Landry stated at a Republican fundraiser in Nashville that he could not “wait to be sued.” A few days later, as he signed the bill, he contended that the Ten Commandments contain important lessons for students. 

“If you want to respect the rule of law, you’ve got to start from the original law giver, which was Moses,” Landry stated. 

The legislation follows a 2022 Supreme Court decision in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District in which the court ruled that a high school football coach retained the right to pray at the 50-yard line after his team’s games. 

Concerning one’s ability to express faith in public, Charles C. Haynes, a senior fellow at the Freedom Forum and an expert in religious liberty and civil discourse, said that “The climate is certainly better” but expressed hesitation regarding the Louisiana legislation, saying, “I think they are overreaching” and that “even this court will have a hard time justifying” the law. 

Some supporters of the law asserted that the Ten Commandments are not solely a religious text but also a historical one. They argue that the laws given to Moses in the Book of Exodus highly influenced United States law. According to Matt Krause, a lawyer for the First Liberty Institute and former Texas state representative, “The Ten Commandments is there, time and time again, as the basis and foundation for the system that America was built upon.”

However, not all discussions of the law pertain to its legal influence. 

State Representative Dodie Horton (R), a sponsor of the law whose district includes Haughton, in the northwestern corner of the state, said that the Ten Commandments are rooted in legal history and that the law would place a “moral code” in the classroom.

“Given all the junk our children are exposed to in classrooms today, it is imperative that we put the Ten Commandments back in a prominent position,” Horton stated.  


Civil liberties groups file lawsuit 

On June 24, the national ACLU, the ACLU of Louisiana, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and the Freedom from Religion Foundation filed a federal lawsuit against Louisiana state officials, alleging the rule “substantially interferes with and burdens” parents’ First Amendment right to direct their children’s religious education and upbringing. 

“Permanently posting the Ten Commandments in every Louisiana public-school classroom — rendering them unavoidable — unconstitutionally pressures students into religious observance, veneration, and adoption of the state’s favored religious scripture,” the lawsuit states, adding that it “sends the harmful and religiously divisive message that students who do not subscribe to the Ten Commandments … do not belong in their own school community and should refrain from expressing any faith practices or beliefs that are not aligned with the state’s religious preferences.”

The legal organizations are representing a diverse group of people, including an atheist and his three children, Jewish parents, and parents who are pastors and reverends, among others. 

Rachel Laser, the president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said regarding the new law, “We’re going to be seeing Gov. Landry in court.”

Haynes said that if the courts do not agree, the result could erase the division between government and religion, which “would change who we are as a country, to go in that direction and have no barrier to government entanglement with religion. What would be left? What couldn’t the government do?”

An ongoing debate 

This law has sparked discussion of the relationship between government and religion in the United States. 

Rev. Steve Ryan, the head of Archbishop Shaw High School, a Catholic-run school in New Orleans, contended the laws were “good safeguards for society. They are actually reasonable.”

State Attorney General Liz Murill said she would defend the law. She posted on social media, “The 10 Commandments are pretty simple (don’t kill, steal, cheat on your wife), but they also are important to our country’s foundations.” 

Former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore also defended the law. 

Those who opposed the law argued its illegality, asserting it divides the constitutional barrier between church and state. 

“We’re worried about public school families and students in Louisiana,” Laser stated. “They come from a variety of different traditions and backgrounds, different religious beliefs, nonreligious beliefs and students in those classrooms will be made to feel like outsiders when they see the government endorsing one set of narrow religious beliefs over others.”

Members of the Islamic Society of North America and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) were also concerned about the law. Edward Ahmed Mitchell, the national deputy director of CAIR asked, “Is it to highlight universal principles that everyone should embrace? Or is the intent to send a message to Muslim students or others that, ‘Your religion – not welcome here, only one understanding of one religion is welcome here’?”

Meanwhile, the state superintendent of education in Oklahoma issued a regulation requiring the Ten Commandments be posted in all public school classrooms.