It’s been longer than I care to think about since I graduated high school, but I remember the school’s walls being covered in posters, flyers for clubs and the latest art projects. This morning, the North Dakota House Judiciary Committee is considering a bill to let public schools display the Ten Commandments on the walls as well.
Of course, displaying the Ten Commandments in a public school would violate the U.S. Constitution. The Supreme Court held that more than 40 years ago in the case Stone v. Graham. The Commandments are a sacred religious text in the Jewish and Christian faiths. Displaying the religious code endorses a specific religious perspective and sends a message to students who do not hold the same religious beliefs as the majority that they are outsiders and not full members of the community. Everyone should feel welcome in their public school, whether they believe in God or not.
Ten Commandment displays are also divisive. Sen. Janne Myrdal (R), the bill sponsor, said she thinks it’s fine to post the Ten Commandments in schools because “no religion is offended by the Ten Commandments. None.” But she is ignoring the fact that the Commandments have no religious meaning for Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs or the many North Dakota students who practice other religions or no religion at all. And even adherents to the Ten Commandments have significant disagreements about their text and meaning. The disagreements lie not only among Jews and Christians but also among Catholics, Lutherans and other Protestants. No matter what version a school board chooses to display, it could be the “wrong” version for someone.
Unfortunately, the misinformation didn’t stop there. Myrdal dismissed concerns that the bill violates the separation of church and state because those words don’t appear in our founding documents. This is an argument we’ve heard before, and it’s not a convincing one. Although it’s true that the phrase “separation of church and state” is not in the Constitution, it comes from a metaphor written by Thomas Jefferson to explain the First Amendment. And if there’s anyone who understands the First Amendment, it’s Jefferson because he wrote the statute that influenced it. AU fights to protect the separation of church and state because it’s the only way to ensure the constitutional principle of freedom of religion.
Myrdal also argued that “after we took prayer and the Ten Commandments out of the public school” teen pregnancy and crime rates rose. The reality is that prayer and the Ten Commandments have never been “taken out” of public schools – students have the right to engage in voluntary, student-led religious activities, including prayer and reading the Ten Commandments. And even if we pretended that we did “take prayer out of schools,” the claim that school prayer will cure every social ill is simplistic. The difficulties that our communities face are complicated and will require equally complex solutions.
A few senators did point out some of the problems with this bill, including that any public school that posts the Commandments will get sued and is sure to lose. But the Senate ultimately passed the bill. We’ll be watching the bill to see if it passes out of the House Judiciary Committee and will continue to fight if it does.
Bad legislation like this isn't limited to North Dakota. Americans United is opposing threats to separation of church and state in state legislatures nationwide. To stay informed, please sign up for our updates.