The Oklahoma legislature’s session doesn’t even begin until Feb. 6, but state Rep. Jim Olsen (R-Roland) is already pushing a bill, HB 2962, that would require public schools to post the Ten Commandments in every school classroom. Passage of this bill would be incredibly damaging to the religious freedom of public school students, their families and school employees. When the government places its seal of approval on a particular religious code, it makes people of other faiths and the nonreligious feel unwelcome in their own schools.
This bill might sound familiar because the Texas legislature tried – but failed – to pass a nearly identical measure just last year. Like the bill in Texas, HB 2962 would require the Ten Commandments be placed in a “conspicuous place” in every single public school classroom in the state. But both the U.S. Constitution and Oklahoma Constitution bar Ten Commandments displays in public schools.
In Stone v. Graham, the U.S. Supreme Court explained why: the Ten Commandments are “undeniably a sacred text in the Jewish and Christian faiths” and displaying them “serves no … educational function.” Basically, the only reason Olsen would want to display the Ten Commandments in public schools is to make students read, believe in and obey them. 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. All young people should feel welcome in their public school, whether they believe in God or not.
Picking and choosing among religions
HB 2962 also dictates the exact text of the Ten Commandments that must be displayed. However, there are significant disagreements about the text and meaning of the Ten Commandments not only among Jews and Christians but also among Catholics, Lutherans and other Protestants. Picking any version of the text to display necessarily takes a position on a theological debate.
Olsen’s bill would advance the top agenda item set out by a group of evangelical pastors who call themselves the Oklahoma Advisory Council on Founding Principles, whose goal is to require all students to “learn of their accountability to the Creator.” This bill would also promote a priority of State Superintendent Ryan Walters, who called for several steps to promote Christianity in public schools, including displaying a “framed copy” of the Ten Commandments in every classroom. Walters is infamous for his many efforts to promote religion in public schools and has said that the separation of church and state “doesn’t exist.” He is also a strong supporter of the effort (which AU is currently fighting in court) to create the nation’s first religious charter school.
Supporters of the bill have either forgotten or are choosing to ignore the fact that Oklahoma voters have already rejected their idea. After the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled that a Ten Commandments monument at the state capitol violated a provision of the state constitution that forbids the use of public funds for religion, the legislature put a ballot question before the voters to repeal the constitutional provision. In 2016, 57% of voters rejected the repeal effort.
Undermining our nation’s foundational principle
Some state legislators are speaking out against the bill as well. Rep. Mickey Dollens (D-Oklahoma City) for example, has said the bill “is unconstitutional, exclusionary, and dangerous. By endorsing a state-sanctioned religion, they undermine the foundational principle of religious freedom upon which the United States was built upon.”
AU fought the Ten Commandments bill in Texas, and we were very glad when it failed to pass. We will work just as hard in Oklahoma to oppose HB 2962 and ensure that public schools remain a place where all students feel welcome.