Mississippi: Public Classroom Ten Commandments Bill Introduced

Ten Commandments Monument Oklahoma

Legislation introduced in the Mississippi state House this week would require educators across the state to recite the Ten Commandments each day during the first hour of class. Introduced by Mississippi Rep. Credell Calhoun (D), House Bill 1100 would “require the teachers in that school district to have the Ten Commandments recited aloud at the beginning of the first hour of class each day that school is in session.” The legislation would also require printed copies of the Ten Commandments to be posted in every classroom as well as the phrase. “In God We Trust.”

As most people have already pointed out, this is decidedly unconstitutional.

Background

Aside from the fact that federal courts have repeatedly rejected the argument that the Ten Commandments should be considered a ‘founding document’ and therefore be allowed in classrooms and posted on taxpayer-funded public grounds, the act of introducing one religion’s explicit tenets into a public educational setting as the standard and “allowing” teachers and students to opt out and (essentially) wait while others engage in religious acts during public school time directly violates the Establishment Clause.

While most Ten Commandment cases deal with the erection of monuments on public land (which is not dissimilar to posting them in a taxpayer-funded classroom), one case deals specifically with public education: Stone v. Graham.

In that case’s opinion, a majority of Supreme Court justices held that a Kentucky law requiring the Ten Commandments be posted in public schools was unconstitutional because “requiring the posting of the Ten Commandments in public school rooms has no secular legislative purpose.”

The majority decision went on to say:

This is not a case in which the Ten Commandments are integrated into the school curriculum, where the Bible may constitutionally be used in an appropriate study of history, civilization, ethics, comparative religion, or the like. Abington School District v. Schempp, supra at 225. Posting of religious texts on the wall serves no such educational function. If the posted copies of the Ten Commandments are to have any effect at all, it will be to induce the schoolchildren to read, meditate upon, perhaps to venerate and obey, the Commandments. However desirable this might be as a matter of private devotion, it is not a permissible state objective under the Establishment Clause.

It does not matter that the posted copies of the Ten Commandments are financed by voluntary private contributions, for the mere posting of the copies under the auspices of the legislature provides the “official support of the State . . . Government” that the Establishment Clause prohibits. 374 U.S. at 222; see Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421, 431 (1962).[n4] Nor is it significant that the Bible verses involved in this case are merely posted on the wall, rather than read aloud as in Schempp and Engel, for “it is no defense to urge that the religious practices here may be relatively minor encroachments on the First Amendment.” Abington School District v. Schempp, supra, at 225. We conclude that Ky.Rev.Stat.[p43] § 158.178 (1980) violates the first part of the Lemon v. Kurtzman test, and thus the Establishment Clause of the Constitution.

Note two other cases the high court mentioned relating to the recitation of the commandments (as they’ve twice handed down decisions on religious incantations in public classrooms in Engel v. Vitale and Abington School District v. Schempp).

Those two cases ruled that public prayer in classrooms constitutes a violation of the Establishment Clause. And in Stone, they confirmed that teachers reading aloud a copy of the Ten Commandments would fall under that same legal distinction and would be unconstitutional.

Unconstitutional

Based on prior rulings by the Supreme Court, Calhoun’s legislation is clearly unconstitutional. Giving teachers and students the option of ‘opting out’ doesn’t move the legal marker, either as the Lemon Test looks at the totality of circumstances in a religious establishment case. And in this case, the posting of and reading of the Ten Commandments would serve no secular or educational purpose.

As the high court ruled in  Lee v. Weisman, “The Establishment Clause was inspired by the lesson that in the hands of government what might begin as a tolerant expression of religious views may end in a policy to indoctrinate and coerce. Prayer exercises in elementary and secondary schools carry a particular risk of indirect coercion.”

HB 1100 joins several other religiously themed bills in Mississippi aimed at furthering the intertwining of church and state. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) noted that:

A bill proposed for the 2018 Mississippi legislative session seeks to add official legal protection to religious monuments and symbols on public grounds and strengthen penalties for removing or destroying monuments to the Confederacy.

State Rep. William Tracy Arnold, a Republican from Booneville in the northeast corner of the state, filed House Bill 281, a measure that provides legal protection for the Ten Commandments, the Beatitudes and “In God We Trust” displays on state property.

They added:

A second measure, House Bill 130, would make the Holy Bible the official state book of Mississippi.

The legislation, by Rep. Tom Miles, a Democrat  from Forest, Mississippi, adds the Bible to the list of official state things, such as petrified wood as the official state stone and the spicebush swallowtail as the official state butterfly.

For now, HB 1100 is in the House Committee on Education and barring an outstanding abdication of responsibility on the part of lawmakers, should hopefully stay there.

Tim Peacock is the Managing Editor and founder of Peacock Panache and has worked as a civil rights advocate for over twenty years. During that time he’s worn several hats including leading on campus LGBT advocacy in the University of Missouri campus system, interning with the Colorado Civil Rights Division, and volunteering at advocacy organizations. You can learn more about him at his personal website.

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