FFRF ready to take on Texas Ten Commandments edict

Benson 10 Commandments Public Property

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is readying a court challenge of the bill expected to pass the Texas Legislature that would require every public school classroom in Texas to prominently display a copy of the Ten Commandments. It passed the Senate last week, and is expected to sail through the House, but its authors should recognize it will have a bumpier ride in court.

The exceptionally bossy bill mandates that public elementary and secondary schools display in a “conspicuous place in every classroom” a durable poster or framed copy of the Ten Commandments “legible to a person with average vision from anywhere in the classroom,” which must be at least 16-by-20 inches. Clearly no student is meant to escape the bible edicts during long years of pedagogical indenture. 

The bill, according to the testimony of its sponsor state Sen. Phil King, “will remind students all across Texas of the importance of the fundamental foundation of America.” Au contraire, Sen. King: There is no Ten Commandments at the U.S. foundation. We’re governed by an entirely secular Constitution whose only references to religion are exclusionary. The Texas state Constitution guarantees that no one can be compelled to attend, erect or support any place of worship, and no preference be given by law to religion.

Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick expressed the most common excuse for justifying the Ten Commandments in schools: “Bringing the Ten Commandments and prayer back to our public schools will enable our students to become better Texans.” How so, lieutenant governor?

Only three of the 10 commandments have any conceivable relevance to U.S. law. The first four are entirely religious in nature: ordering which god to worship, barring graven images, barring taking the Lord’s name in vain, and, finally, remembering the Sabbath. All four of these commandments violate our First Amendment. The state of Texas and its public schools have no business telling students which god to have, how many gods to have — or whether to have any gods at all. 

The Fifth Commandment, honoring parents, is not legislatable. Anyway, isn’t it parents who have the duty of care to honor the children they bring into the world?

Every human society of whatever religious persuasion has adopted laws against killing (the Sixth Commandment) and theft (the Eighth), but in most societies they are wisely not couched in absolutes. Our civil laws recognize accidental killing and degrees of responsibility, such as manslaughter and self-defense.

Then there’s that Seventh Commandment so supposedly relevant to our K-12 classrooms: adultery. Let’s see Sen. King sit down and try to explain that one to kindergartners. The Christian nationalists who object to classroom discussion on sexuality now want to continually expose tots to the concept of adultery?! As for the Ninth against “bearing false witness,” the United States already has secular regulations against perjury and false advertising, thank you.

The Tenth Commandment must be condemned as both inane and sexist. King’s version reads: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his cattle, nor anything that is thy neighbor’s.” (King left out “ass.”) This commandment insultingly is directed at men, and treats women as male property. Speaking of offensive, the words “manservant” and “maidservant” are bible-speak for “slave.” As for its prohibition against “coveting,” why on earth would the state of Texas care if you “covet” your neighbor’s house? The Freedom From Religion Foundation has joked for years that if we outlaw coveting, our entire free enterprise system would collapse.

And isn’t it rather blasphemous for King to decree which version of the Ten Commandments must be posted? There are three, found in Exodus 20, Exodus 34:28 and Deuteronomy 5, which are contradictory. Exodus 34:28, which is titled “the Ten Commandments,” has almost entirely different rules, mainly about feasts and sacrifices and such. Its 10th commandment is a winner: “Thou shalt not seethe a kid in its mother’s milk.” How can kids possibly grow up moral without seeing that rule every day on classroom walls?

Further, King, by employing excerpts of the commandments, not actual biblical text, appears to have created 11 commandments! His version is inconsistent with most traditions. It endorses Protestantism, because it includes a prohibition against graven images, which Catholic bibles traditionally delete.

Texas legislators are coming together to tell other people’s children by law which are the true “Ten Commandments.” The government is weighing in on what is generally disagreed upon even by various Christian sects, which is precisely the kind of government action the Framers of our secular Constitution sought to prohibit.

The bill in question is patently unconstitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court issued a definitive decision, Stone v. Graham in 1980, noting that “the preeminent purpose for posting the Ten Commandments on schoolroom walls is plainly religious.”

The court held: “The Ten Commandments are undeniably a sacred text in the Jewish and Christian faiths, and no legislative recitation of a supposed secular purpose can blind us to that fact. The commandments do not confine themselves to arguably secular matters, such as honoring one’s parents, killing or murder, adultery, stealing, false witness, and covetousness. See Exodus 20:12–17; Deuteronomy 5:16–21. Rather, the first part of the commandments concerns the religious duties of believers: worshipping the Lord God alone, avoiding idolatry, not using the Lord’s name in vain, and observing the Sabbath Day. See Exodus 20:1–11; Deuteronomy 5:6–15.”

But Texas lawmakers don’t care what the Supreme Court used to say. They’re counting on the new extremist majority on the high court to overturn Stone v. Graham, as it so cavalierly overturned almost 50 years of precedent in Roe v. Wade. King cites the court’s decision last year in the Bremerton case involving prayerful Coach Joe Kennedy, who sued to pray on the 50-yard line at the conclusion of games. But King is overstating the import of that case and forgetting that the court did not approve a high school official leading students in prayer. On the contrary, the court (in an admittedly disingenuous decision) said exactly the opposite: that this behavior was permissible precisely because the coach was not praying with students, but as a private citizen on down time after the game.

It’s dismaying that the Texas Legislature could be so ignorant and so desirous of bullying children into religious submission. But FFRF, in fighting this un-American law, will be heeding our favorite advice: “Thou shalt honor thy First Amendment.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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