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What is Louisiana’s Ten Commandments law and why is it controversial? | Civil Rights News

What is Louisiana’s Ten Commandments law and why is it controversial? | Civil Rights News

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The US state of Louisiana has passed a law requiring all state-funded schools and universities to display the biblical Ten Commandments, which are considered central to both Christianity and Judaism. The new law was signed on June 19 by the Republican Louisiana governor, Jeff Landry.

“If you want to respect the rule of law, you’ve got to start from the original law-giver, which was Moses,” Landry said at the signing ceremony, referring to the biblical precepts believed to have been revealed to Moses, a Hebrew teacher and leader depicted in the Bible.

Critics argue that the new law – House Bill 71 – violates the First Amendment, which guarantees the right to free speech, and some say it amounts to an attack on LGBTQ rights.

Here’s a look at the latest in a rising number of new conservative laws, mostly passed by Republican states, and what it means.

What does the new Ten Commandments law stipulate?

Louisiana is the first US state to require the Ten Commandments to be displayed in schools. The law stipulates the following:

  • Public schools are required to display a poster or framed copy of the Ten Commandments in every classroom, school library and cafeteria.
  • They must be displayed on a poster of minimum 11×14-inch (28×35.5cm) size and be written in an easily readable, large font.
  • Schools are authorised to accept donations or private funding to cover the costs of the posters.
  • The deadline for this requirement would be the beginning of the new school year in 2025.

House Bill 71 is not the only religious-leaning law to have been passed in Louisiana recently. House Bill 98, which was passed last month, permits public school districts to hire chaplains to serve as mental health professionals and counsellors.

Louisiana also became the eighth US state to adopt the Given Name Act, which allows school employees and teachers to refuse to use a student’s chosen name or pronouns if they differ from the ones given to them at birth, when it passed House Bill 81 last month.

Workers repaint a Ten Commandments billboard off of Interstate 71 on Election Day near Chenoweth, Ohio
Louisiana has become the first state to require that the Ten Commandments be displayed in every public school classroom under a new law [File: Carolyn Kaster/AP Photo]

Has Louisiana considered any other laws like these?

Earlier this month, Louisiana House Bill 463 which would ban gender-affirming care for transgender minors was proposed. If that bill passes, it will prohibit transgender minors from accessing any gender-affirming treatments. This includes irreversible procedures like breast surgery, which alters breast tissue, as well as the prescription of puberty blockers to young people who wish to delay the onset of puberty at the normal time.

In May this year, Louisiana became the first state to pass a bill which designates the abortion pills, mifepristone and misoprostol, as “controlled dangerous substances”. The two abortion pills – mifepristone and misoprostol – would be placed in the same category as opioid pills and other highly addictive drugs under Louisiana’s Uniform Controlled Dangerous Substances Law, which regulates addictive drugs such as opioids. Possession of these drugs will become illegal without a prescription if Governor Landry signs it into law, something he is expected to do as an abortion opponent.

A pregnant woman possessing the pills “for her own consumption” would be exempt from the law, but anyone who is not a doctor or a licensed provider who helps women get the pills could be prosecuted.

In 2019, Governor Landry, together with several Republican state attorneys general, joined forces to urge the US Supreme Court to uphold that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not cover discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The court did not agree.

What do opponents of these new laws say?

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said it would file a legal challenge to House Bill 71 requiring schools to display the Ten Commandments. “The law is blatantly unconstitutional,” the ACLU said in a statement on June 19.

“The First Amendment promises that we all get to decide for ourselves what religious beliefs, if any, to hold and practice, without pressure from the government. Politicians have no business imposing their preferred religious doctrine on students and families in public schools.”

Some critics argue that House Bill 81, the Given Name Act, goes too far by allowing school employees and teachers to refuse to use a student’s chosen name or pronouns, calling the law an attack on LGBTQ rights. Even if parental consent for a student to use chosen names or pronouns were granted, the legislation permits teachers to disregard it, citing religious or moral grounds.

Former Louisiana House Representative Joe Marino weighed into the row in May last year when he stated on the House floor: “This is a culture war bill designed to impose one group’s values over the rest.” He has since resigned from the House.

Are critics correct to say these new laws are unconstitutional?

Many believe so. The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the US Constitution states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”

According to legal and constitutional experts, the Louisiana Ten Commandments law violates the principle of what is informally known in the United States as “separation of church and state”.

This clause ensures that no single religious belief or institution holds sway over public policies or institutions.

“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 favoured religious scripture,” the ACLU said in its lawsuit.

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