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Louisiana sued over new law forcing Ten Commandments display in classrooms

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Well that didn’t take long. Just days after Louisiana’s Republican Gov. Jeff Landry signed a law requiring public schools to post a copy of the Ten Commandments in every classroom, a lawsuit has officially been filed to put a stop to it. And it reads like it’s written specifically for the Supreme Court justices who will likely, eventually, decide this case.

Landry said in a speech just over a week ago that he “can’t wait to be sued.”

Wish granted.

Earlier today, a coalition of religion and non-religious plaintiffs backed by several groups that fight for church/state separation sued a slew of Louisiana officials who are on the State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education along with Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley. They also sued the individual school districts that the plaintiffs and their children belong to. (Landry himself is not a defendant in the lawsuit.)The ACLU, the ACLU of Louisiana, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and the Freedom from Religion Foundation—along with the New York City law firm Simpson, Thatcher & Bartlett—said that HB 71 “substantially interferes with and burdens” their clients’ First Amendment freedoms. By mandating the KJV Ten Commandments be displayed in every classroom, the state is effectively telling kids which religion counts — and which ones don’t. The practical consequence of that message is to teach kids from non-KJV families that they are second-class citizens.

“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. It also sends the harmful and religiously divisive message that students who do not subscribe to the Ten Commandments—or, more precisely, to the specific version of the Ten Commandments that H.B. 71 requires schools to display—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.”

Right from the beginning, the lawsuit makes clear there’s “no longstanding tradition” of displaying the Ten Commandments in public spaces and no legal precedent to back up that notion. With the Supreme Court having destroyed the Lemon Test, they’ve made clear they’ll consider tradition when it comes to religion elements on public property. If a Christian cross, for example, has been up on city property for decades and decades without complaint, then that’s justification enough for it to be allowed to remain there.This lawsuit says that argument cannot work here because that tradition doesn’t exist.The lawsuit also cites some of the Republicans who sponsored the bill, since they made clear the goal was shoving their personal religion in kids’ faces:

The law’s primary sponsor and author, Representative Dodie Horton, proclaimed during debate over the bill that it “seeks to have a display of God’s law in the classroom for children to see what He says is right and what He says is wrong.”… Representative Roger Wilder, another co-author and co-sponsor of H.B. 71, expressed his support for the law by claiming that those who oppose it are waging an “attack on Christianity” and suggesting that it would provide a religious counterbalance to students’ secular education: “My wife is a Christian and if she was a teacher she would be asked to teach evolution which is in complete contradiction with the theory of creation that we believe out of the Bible. . . . I am a parent and am asking for this [bill].”

What about the bill itself? Even that inadvertently gives away the game. For example, while the bill says the Decalogue must be displayed on a poster that’s at least 11” by 14” and while the text must be large and legible, there are no such rules for the disclaimers that must also be displayed next to those posters.Nor are there size or legibility requirements for the optional additional documents, like the Mayflower Compact and the Declaration of Independence, that schools may place next to the Ten Commandments.What about the argument that the Founding Fathers wanted this? Hell, the bill even says “History records that James Madison, the fourth President of the United States of America, stated that “(w)e have staked the whole future of our new nation . . . upon the capacity of each of ourselves to govern ourselves according to the moral principles of the Ten Commandments.”

The lawsuit says that quotation is bullshit: “Madison never said this in any of his public or private writings or in any of his speeches.” The Guardian reports that the fake line “appears to have been drawn from a conspiracy theory popularized by the late rightwing talk show host Rush Limbaugh.” Christian pseudo-historian David Barton has also spread the lie.

The lawsuit notes that many citizens don’t follow the Ten Commandments (not all of them, anyway) that the specific KJV text of the law isn’t even used by many Christians, and even the numbering of the Commandments is different based on which part of the Bible you’re citing: “Among those who may believe in some version of the Ten Commandments, the particular text that they follow can differ by religious denomination or tradition. For instance, Catholics, Jews, and many Protestants differ in the way that they number, organize, and translate the commandments from Hebrew to English.”

Then there’s the obvious coercion factor. Students as young as kindergarten will be “pressured into religious observance, veneration, and adoption of this religious scripture.” Those who reject the list may feel publicly ostracized. And the parents who don’t subscribe to KJV or Christianity in general shouldn’t have to deal with their kids’ public schools usurping their own roles in directing their education.

Speaking of which, the list of plaintiffs is really incredible. These are not just random atheists or activists. There are multiple clergy members from a variety of religious backgrounds. There’s a Unitarian-Universalist family. There’s a Jewish parent. There are non-religious and explicitly atheist parents. All of them say the Ten Commandments have no business in their kids’ schools.

Here’s how one of the plaintiffs, Reverend Jeff Sims, put it:

“By favoring one version of the Ten Commandments and mandating that it be posted in public schools, the government is intruding on deeply personal matters of religion. I believe that it’s critical for my children to receive and understand scripture within the context of our faith, which honors God’s gift of diversity and teaches that all people are equal. This law sends a contrary message of religious intolerance that one denomination or faith system is officially preferable to others, and that those who don’t adhere to it are lesser in worth and status. As a pastor and father, I cannot, in good conscience, sit by silently while our political representatives usurp God’s authority for themselves and trample our fundamental religious-freedom rights.”

The Jewish parent says “Tolerance is at the heart of our family’s practice of Judaism, and this effort to evangelize students, including my children, is antithetical to our core religious beliefs and our values as Americans.”

The atheist parents add: “The State of Louisiana should not direct a religious upbringing of our child and require students to observe the state’s preferred religious doctrine in every classroom.”

You get the idea. These people have very different religious views, but they are all on the same page when it comes to their government giving preferential treatment to one brand of Christianity.

The lawsuit says the state is violating the First Amendment’s Establishment and Free Exercise clauses. They want a judge to strike it down entirely, then make the Louisiana officials send a notice to all schools in the state that the law no longer applies, along with all attorneys’ fees covered by the defendants.

No matter how strong these arguments seem, though, the nature of our legal system is that when a conservative court hears a Culture War case, they will distort the facts to fit their desired outcome. These plaintiffs are trying to anticipate what someone like Sam Alito might argue in order to put up an obstacle when he tries to use it. It doesn’t mean he won’t steamroll over the Constitution anyway, but it’s a smart strategic move.

One thing the lawsuit does not do is question the Ten Commandments themselves. You don’t see the lawyers highlighting, say, the hypocrisy of Christian lawmakers who support the death penalty while also claiming “Thou shalt not kill.” That’s because the focus of the lawsuit is on the broken law itself. It’s not a debate over the Ten Commandments.

While Louisiana’s law is supposed to be in effect by January 1 of next year, other states like Texas and Arizona and Utah and Oklahoma have shown interest in similar versions of this bill. Donald Trump, who probably can’t recite even half the Commandments, encouraged them to pass their own versions. But a wise ruling from a federal judge who understands that the Ten Commandments are religious (obviously!) and not secular could halt all those other efforts in one fell swoop. That’s the hope, anyway.

Louisiana, on the other hand, is going to do everything it can to get this battle in the courtrooms of Trump-friendly judges. In response to the lawsuit announcement, the state’s Attorney General Elizabeth Murrill said she looked forward to defending the Christian Nationalist legislation in court… with a predictably off-topic statement of her own:

“It seems the ACLU only selectively cares about the First Amendment — it doesn’t care when the Biden administration censors speech or arrests pro-life protesters, but apparently it will fight to prevent posters that discuss our own legal history,” Murrill said in the emailed statement.

If you want to argue about the ACLU’s flaws (or those of the other groups), that’s an important discussion to have. But it’s not this discussion. Murrill didn’t say anything about the merits of the other side’s arguments. She just insisted it’s “legal history” without getting into specifics… because there are none.

It doesn’t mean she’ll lose. It just means she’s not good at her job.

The one silver lining right now is that this case was randomly assigned to U.S. District Judge John deGravelles, who was nominated to his seat by President Barack Obama. That suggests he could put a stop to the law before students go back to school in the fall.

No matter what a judge says, though, this case will be appealed, likely all the way to the Supreme Court. When that happens, it won’t matter that an identical law in Kentucky was deemed unconstitutional 44 years ago in Stone v. Graham. It won’t matter that the 2005 Supreme Court case of Van Order v. Perry said that a Ten Commandments monument on government property was only permissible in context, like as part of a broader set of displays dealing with laws throughout history.

The right-wing justices today don’t care about legal precedent. They’ll ignore legal history in order to create a false version of it—one that would open the doors to other Christian symbols in more public spaces.

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