When you walk the halls of your local public elementary school, you probably expect to see science projects, student artwork and posters with grammar rules decorating the walls. But in Alabama, the legislature has voted to encourage a new addition to those displays at school: the Ten Commandments.
That’s right – if legislators have their way, students would see the words “Remember to keep holy the Sabbath day” and “You shall have no other Gods before me” hanging in the halls of their public schools. There’s no doubt you’d feel more like you were in a Sunday school classroom than a public school classroom.
Alabama legislators last week passed Senate Bill 181, which puts a question on Alabama’s November 2018 ballot: Should the state amend its constitution to give public schools and public buildings “the right to the display of the Ten Commandments” with other items?
The question might as well ask whether the voters want taxpayers to fund costly lawsuits, because that is exactly what this measure will invite.
By displaying the Ten Commandments, Alabama would make many residents and students feel like outsiders in their own communities. Everyone should feel welcome in public schools and public meeting places, whether they believe in God or not.
Alabama’s legislators promise a “yes” vote will create a “right to display the Ten Commandments” on public property and in public schools. But this ballot measure can’t authorize displays that the U.S. Constitution already forbids. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1980 that displaying the Ten Commandments in public schools is unconstitutional. Courts have also struck down displays of the Ten Commandments on public property with other surrounding historical items when it’s done with a religious purpose. Representatives who support the display have made their religious purpose known. For example, one representative said that he supports this measure because it’ll help people who “forgot who Christ is in their life.”
Even if religious displays like the Ten Commandments were permitted by the Constitution, they don’t belong on public property, and especially not in public schools. By displaying the Ten Commandments, Alabama would make many residents and students feel like outsiders in their own communities. Everyone should feel welcome in public schools and public meeting places, whether they believe in God or not. And when they send their kids to public schools, parents shouldn’t have to worry that their children will be encouraged to follow a faith that isn’t their own.
Even though I’m a Jew who grew up learning about the Ten Commandments in Hebrew school, seeing them hanging in my public school or public building would make me uncomfortable. The Jewish version I learned is in Hebrew and has 13 sentences, to indicate the 13 mitzvot (commandments from God) that Jews are supposed to follow. But the Protestant Christian version has 17 sentences in a different order. The Roman Catholic and Lutheran versions are different too. No matter which version they choose, a government display of the Ten Commandments will leave some Jews and Christians out, not to mention Hindus, Buddhists, non-theists and all the others who don’t believe in them. The best solution is not to promote religious symbols on public property at all.
We’ll be watching closely to see what happens when this measure appears on the ballot in November. Sign up for our updates here to make sure you can be involved in our next steps.
If Alabama wants to display a document in public spaces that brings Americans of different faiths together and honors our shared value of religious freedom, we’ve got a better idea: the U.S. Constitution.