BREAKING NEWS: FFRF, coalition sues over La. law requiring public schools to display 10 Commandments

A group of nine Louisiana families with children in public schools filed suit in federal court today to block HB 71, a new state law requiring all public elementary, secondary, and postsecondary schools to display the Ten Commandments in every classroom.

In their complaint filed today in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana, the plaintiffs, who are Jewish, Christian, Unitarian Universalist and nonreligious, assert that the newly enacted statute violates longstanding U.S. Supreme Court precedent and the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment. More than 40 years ago, in Stone v. Graham, the Supreme Court overturned a similar state law, holding that the separation of church and state bars public schools from posting the Ten Commandments in classrooms. No other state requires the Ten Commandments to be displayed in public schools. The plaintiffs in Roake v. Brumley are represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana, Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the Freedom from Religion Foundation, with Simpson Thacher Bartlett LLP serving as pro bono counsel.

The complaint further alleges that HB 71 “substantially interferes with and burdens” the First Amendment right of parents to direct their children’s religious education and upbringing, and that, in approving and mandating the display of a specific version of the Ten Commandments, the law runs afoul of the First Amendment’s prohibition against the government taking sides on questions of theological debate. Moreover, the complaint highlights the religiously coercive nature of the displays mandated by HB 71:

“Posting the Ten Commandments in every Louisiana public-school classroom, rendering them unavoidable, unconstitutionally pressures students into religious observance, veneration, and adoption of a state-sanctioned, 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 HB 71 requires schools to post — 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.”

In connection with today’s filing, plaintiffs in the case issued the following statements:

Jennifer Harding and Benjamin Owens

“As a nonreligious family, we oppose the government forcibly subjecting all children to a religious scripture that we don’t believe in. 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.”

Erin Hawley and David Hawley

“We instill moral and ethical values in our children through positive concepts, such as love and caring for others, not biblical commandments. As Unitarian Universalists, we strongly believe that every person has the right to undertake a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. That cannot happen when the government forces scripture on people, especially children — who are at the beginning of their spiritual journeys.”

Joshua Herlands

“As a parent, an American and a Jew, I am appalled that state lawmakers are forcing public schools to post a specific version of the Ten Commandments in every classroom. These displays distort the Jewish significance of the Ten Commandments and send the troubling message to students that one set of religious laws is favored over all others. 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.”

Rev. Darcy Roake & Adrian Van Young

“As an interfaith family, we strongly value religious inclusion and diversity, and we teach our children that all people are equal and have inherent dignity and worth. The Ten Commandments displays required by this law fly in the face of these values and send a message of religious intolerance. They will not only undermine our ability to instill these values in our children, but they will also help create an unwelcoming and oppressive school environment for children, like ours, who don’t believe in the state’s official version of scripture. We believe that no child should feel excluded in public school because of their family’s faith tradition.”

Rev. Jeff Sims

“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.”

In  connection with today’s filing, the organizations representing the plaintiffs issued the following statements:

“A state may not force religion upon a captive audience of young and impressionable students with varying religions — or none at all,” said FFRF Legal Director Patrick Elliott. “We look forward to protecting the constitutional rights of all families in Louisiana.”

“This law is a disturbing abuse of power by state officials,” said Heather L. Weaver, senior staff attorney for the ACLU’s Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. “Louisiana law requires children to attend school so they can be educated, not evangelized. In bringing today’s lawsuit, we intend to make sure that Louisiana public schools remain welcoming to all students, regardless of their faith.”

“By filing this lawsuit, Louisianans clap back and let the Governor know he can’t use religion as a cover for repression,” said Alanah Odoms, executive director of the ACLU of Louisiana. “Public schools are not Sunday schools. We must protect the individual right of students and families to choose their own faith or no faith at all. The separation of church and state is a bedrock of our nation’s founding principles; the ten commandments are not.”

“This lawsuit is necessary to protect the religious freedom of Louisiana public schoolchildren and their families,” said Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “Not just in Louisiana, but all across the country, Christian Nationalists are seeking to infiltrate our public schools and force everyone to live by their beliefs. Not under our watch. Secular, inclusive public schools that welcome all students regardless of their belief system form the backbone of our diverse and religiously pluralistic communities. This nation must recommit to our foundational principle of church-state separation before it’s too late. Public education, religious freedom and democracy are all on the line.”

Jon Youngwood, global co-chair of the Litigation Department at Simpson Thacher, added, “As the complaint states, Louisiana’s law inhibits our clients’ First Amendment rights to choose whether and how they engage with religious doctrines. We look forward to expeditiously presenting this case to the district court for a speedy resolution.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with over 40,000 members across the country. Our purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

Americans United is a religious freedom advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, AU educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom. Learn more at

For more than 100 years, the ACLU has worked in courts, legislatures, and communities to protect the constitutional rights of all people. With a nationwide network of offices and millions of members and supporters, the ACLU takes on the toughest civil liberties fights in pursuit of liberty and justice for all. For more information on the ACLU, visit

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