Education Law

Louisiana requires Ten Commandments to be displayed in public classrooms

  • Print

Louisiana Gov. Jeff Landry

Louisiana Gov. Jeff Landry speaks with reporters outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., in this March 18 file photo. (Francis Chung/POLITICO via AP Images)

Gov. Jeff Landry (R) signed legislation Wednesday requiring every public classroom in Louisiana to display the Ten Commandments, becoming the first state with such a law and inflaming tensions over the separation between church and state.

“This bill mandates the display of the Ten Commandments in every classroom—public elementary, secondary and post-education schools—in the state of Louisiana, because if you want to respect the rule of law, you’ve got to start from the original lawgiver, which was Moses,” Landry said at a bill-signing ceremony.

Critics vowed to challenge the law in court, calling it unconstitutional and warning that it will lead to religious coercion of students.

“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,” the Louisiana chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, the Freedom From Religion Foundation and other groups said in a joint statement Wednesday. “Politicians have no business imposing their preferred religious doctrine on students and families in public schools.”

Landry has signaled that he welcomes the fight.

“I’m going home to sign a bill that places the Ten Commandments in public classrooms,” he said Saturday at a GOP fundraiser in Nashville, the Tennessean reported. “And I can’t wait to be sued.”

The law gives schools until Jan. 1 to display the Ten Commandments—religious and ethical directives handed down to the prophet Moses in the Bible—on “a poster or framed document that is at least eleven inches by fourteen inches” in every classroom. The commandments have to be the display’s “central focus” and be “printed in a large, easily readable font.”

The law requires a context statement to accompany the commandments, positioning the text as “a prominent part of American public education” from the late 17th century through the late 20th century. Schools have to use donated posters or spend donated money, rather than public funds, to purchase the displays.

The Louisiana House overwhelmingly passed the bill in April, and the state Senate followed suit in May. Both votes largely fell along party lines in the Republican-controlled chambers.

Similar proposals to display the Ten Commandments in schools have been introduced—but have not become law—in Texas, Oklahoma, Mississippi and South Carolina. In Utah, lawmakers diluted an attempt to mandate the commandments in classrooms, instead adding the religious directives to a list of documents that can be discussed in classrooms.

Lawmakers in mostly Republican-led states have proposed other efforts that blur the lines between church and state in recent years, with some framing the movement as an attempt to reclaim religious freedom.

Public education has been a common battleground. Inspired by a law passed in Texas in 2023, more than a dozen states have introduced legislation this year to bring chaplains into public schools. And as school voucher programs expand rapidly in GOP-run states, the vast majority of the funds—billions in taxpayer dollars—are directed to religious schools, The Washington Post reported this month.

After Louisiana lawmakers voted to require the Ten Commandments in classrooms, the Center for Inquiry, a nonprofit that advocates for a secular society, wrote to Landry to urge him to veto it. The group said becoming the first state to require the commandments to be posted in classrooms would be “a dishonorable distinction.”

The bill “is an exclusionary, heavy-handed measure that will make every student who is a member of a minority religion (or no religion at all) feel like an outsider in their own school and virtually invite litigation at taxpayer expense,” the center said in a statement.

Republican state Rep. Michael Bayham, one of the bill’s authors, argued Wednesday that the new law is not just about religion—nor are the Ten Commandments.

“It’s our foundational law. Our sense of right and wrong is based off of the Ten Commandments,” he told The Post, adding that Moses is a historical figure and not just a religious one.

“The Ten Commandments is as much about civilization and right and wrong,” Bayham said. “It does not say you have to be this particular faith or that particular faith.”

It’s unclear how Louisiana’s law will fare if it winds its way to the Supreme Court. A decision to uphold the statute would fly in the face of direct precedent, said Douglas Laycock, a professor emeritus of constitutional law at the University of Virginia.

The Supreme Court in 1980 struck down a Kentucky law that also attempted to require the Ten Commandments to be displayed in classrooms. The court said the statute had no plausible secular purpose and violated the First Amendment’s establishment clause, which bars the federal government from favoring any one religion.

“They’ve always said that public schools are different because children are more susceptible to influence,” Laycock told The Post.

But recent Supreme Court rulings have been more lenient toward religion in schools. In 2022, the court ruled in favor of a Washington state football coach who knelt at midfield to pray and was joined by student-athletes. The prayers were protected by the Constitution’s guarantees of free speech and religious exercise, the court said.

Proponents of the Louisiana law would have to convince the court that there’s a secular purpose for it. They may be counting on the conservative-leaning court to rule in their favor, Laycock said.

“It is just impossible to imagine any secular reason for doing this,” he said. “We’ll see how far they’re willing to go.”

Give us feedback, share a story tip or update, or report an error.