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Louisiana becomes first state to require Ten Commandments displayed in classrooms

ROB SCHMITZ, HOST:

Louisiana has now become the first state to require the Ten Commandments to be displayed in public school classrooms. Republican Governor Jeff Landry signed the bill into law today. Similar laws have been blocked from going into effect in the past, and opponents are likely to challenge this one in court. But backers say the legal landscape has changed since those other laws were struck down, pointing to recent rulings from the U.S. Supreme Court. For more, we're joined by NPR's Ryland Barton. Hello, Ryland.

RYLAND BARTON, BYLINE: Hello.

SCHMITZ: So tell us, what exactly does this law require Louisiana schools to do?

BARTON: Yeah, so starting in January, every public school classroom will be required to display a poster listing the Ten Commandments - so thou shalt not kill, steal, commit adultery, bare false witness and so on. The poster has to be dimensions of at least 11 inches by 14 inches. The Ten Commandments have to be the central focus and have to be printed in a large, easily readable font. Schools will also be required to display what they call a context statement that says the Ten Commandments were a prominent part of American public education until 50 years ago and list examples where they were included in textbooks dating all the way back to the 17th century.

SCHMITZ: So Ryland, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution begins with the words, Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion. But doesn't a display like this in public schools violate the separation of church and state?

BARTON: Yeah, right, there's quite a bit of legal precedent against being able to display the Ten Commandments in public buildings, especially schools. For example, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a similar law in Kentucky in 1980, saying it violated the First Amendment's establishment clause. That's what prohibits the government from establishing an official religion.

But some religious conservatives say Louisiana's Ten Commandments law might fare differently, given the court's current conservative majority. They point to a 2022 ruling where justices ruled in favor of a high school football coach in Washington state who prayed with his team on the 50-yard line. The coach sued the school district after staff asked him to remove the prayer.

SCHMITZ: Has anyone said that they're going to challenge this law?

BARTON: Yeah. So already, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Freedom From Religion Foundation say they're planning to sue to block the new law. In a joint statement, the group said the law is blatantly unconstitutional and that, quote, "politicians have no business imposing their preferred religious doctrine on students and families in public schools."

Also, the Southern Poverty Law Center testified against the bill during a hearing, saying it violates the rights of people with different religious beliefs. They even made the case that it violated parental rights - something conservatives have really been pushing for in legislatures as they try to govern how gender and sexuality are talked about in schools.

SCHMITZ: Now Ryland, Louisiana is not the first state to come up with a bill like this recently, right?

BARTON: Right. So it's at least been proposed in other states. So bills like this have come up in other states, like Texas, Oklahoma and South Carolina lately, but none of them have passed into law amid threats of legal battles. Louisiana Governor Jeff Landry seems to be well aware of the legal situation. And at a recent fundraiser in Tennessee, he told the crowd, quote, "I can't wait to be sued."

SCHMITZ: He can't wait to be sued. You know, tell us about Landry's role in all this. You know, this is his first year in office after ousting Democratic Governor John Bel Edwards.

BARTON: Yeah, Landry was elected last year and quickly made his mark on the state. During this year's legislative session, he signed conservative bills classifying abortion medication as controlled substances, allowing judges to order surgical castration of child sex offenders. It's a new conservative era in Louisiana right now.

SCHMITZ: That's NPR's Ryland Barton. Thank you.

BARTON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF 9TH WONDER'S "TAO TAO LOVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Ryland Barton
Ryland Barton is a senior editor for the States Team on NPR’s National Desk. Based in Louisville, he works with reporters across the country covering state government policy and politics.