February 2024 Church & State Magazine - February 2024

Okla. legislator wants Ten Commandments posted in every school


Every public school classroom in Oklahoma would be required to post a copy of the Ten Commandments under the terms of a bill introduced by state Rep. Jim Olsen (R-Roland).

The Ten Commandments: Coming soon to Okla. public schools? (Getty Images)

Olsen’s proposal, HB 2962, would mandate that the religious text be posted in a “conspicuous place” in the classrooms. His bill is similar to a measure that was introduced in the Texas legislature last year but failed to pass.

Americans United says Olsen’s proposal is problematic on several fronts. First off, it’s of dubious legality. In Stone v. Graham (1980), the U.S. Supreme Court struck down display of the Ten Commandments in Kentucky public schools, explaining that the Ten Commandments are “undeniably a sacred text in the Jewish and Christian faiths” and displaying them “serves no … educational function.”

The bill would also require the state to pick a favored version of the Ten Commandments. 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. Selecting a version of the text to display, AU points out, necessarily compels the government to take a position on a theological debate.

Finally, the display of a religious code in public schools 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, AU asserts, should feel welcome in their public school, whether their beliefs honor the Ten Commandments or not.

Olsen’s bill would advance the top agenda item embraced by a group of evangelical pastors who call themselves the Oklahoma Advisory Council on Founding Principles. The Council’s chief goal is to require all students to “learn of their accountability to the Creator.”

The bill would also promote a priority of State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters, who has 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 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, AU says, 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.

Some state legislators are speaking out against the measure. 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.”

Writing on AU’s “Wall of Separation” blog, Mary Cugini, public policy coordinator, observed, “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.”

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