January 2019 Church & State | People & Events

New social studies standards in Texas will retain a reference to Moses as a significant influence on the U.S. Constitution.

The Texas State Board of Education met in November to discuss a series of proposed changes to the standards. While some were adopt­ed, such as proposals to make the connection between the Civil War and slavery more explicit and to tone down inflammatory language unjustly linking Islam to terrorism, others were rejected. Among them was a proposal to remove a reference to Moses as a kind of honorary Founding Father.

The board first voted to add Moses to the curriculum in November 2014. Some members of the board, which has for years been dominated by social conservatives, have insisted that the Ten Commandments are the basis for U.S. law, a view disputed by mainstream historians.

During its recent meeting, a minority faction on the board argued for removing the references to Moses.

“Maybe he was a law-giver, but that doesn’t mean he influenced our Founding Fathers,” said board member Ruben Cortez, a Democrat from Brownsville. “That doesn’t mean we can make a giant leap that someone from an entirely different continent centuries ago ... was somehow responsible for drafting ... these founding documents.”

But other members disagreed.

“In the United States, the most common book in any household in this time period was, in fact, the Bible, and people who didn’t necessarily believe in religion as such ... still had a great knowledge of the Bible,” said GOP board member Pat Hardy of Fort Worth. “In referencing Moses in the time period, they would have known who Moses was and that Moses was the law-giver.”

The Austin American-Statesman reported that under the new standards, public school students in Texas will learn that Moses was among those who influenced the U.S. Constitution. Other names listed are William Blackstone, John Locke and Charles de Montesquieu.

Historians have disputed the influence of the Ten Commandments on American law. In 2003, 41 law professors and legal historians weighed in on a lawsuit challenging then-Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore’s display of the Ten Commandments in the state Judicial Building in Montgomery by filing a legal brief in federal court mustering ample historical evidence to debunk claims by Moore’s attorneys that he has a right to display the Ten Commandments because they are the foundation of American law.

Nothing in the nation’s history supported Moore’s view, the legal scholars and historians asserted.

“Aside from a failed attempt in the seventeenth century to establish a biblically based legal system in the Puritan colonies, American law is generally viewed as having secular origins,” the brief argued.

The scholars noted that “various documents and texts” figured in the development of American law, among them English common and statutory law, Roman law, the civil law of continental Europe and private international law. They listed its primary influences as the writings of William Blackstone, John Locke, Adam Smith and others as well as the Magna Carta, the Federalist Papers and other sources.

“Each of these documents had a far greater influence on America’s laws than the Ten Commandments,” asserted the brief. “Indeed, the legal and historical record does not include significant and meaningful references to the Ten Commandments, the Pentateuch or to biblical law generally.”

Texas Freedom Network, a group that works to counter the influence of the Religious Right in that state, blasted the board for promoting distortions.

“This was just an extended exercise in politicians masquerading as historians,” said Kathy Miller, the organization’s president. “If the facts didn’t conform to their personal beliefs about the past, board members just ignored what teachers and historians were telling them. If this were a classroom, they would get a failing grade and certainly have failed millions of Texas kids across the state.”

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