OPINION: Public classrooms aren’t the place for the Ten Commandments

Louisiana’s Republican Gov. Jeff Landry signed a law this week that will require the Ten Commandments to be displayed in classrooms. The sponsor of the bill, republican Representative Dodie Horton, said that the Ten Commandments are the “basis of all laws in Louisiana” and that the legislation honors the country’s religious origins. Louisiana Republican state Sen. Jay Morris said that the Ten Commandments “display the history of our country and foundation of our legal system.”

The claim that these commandments have a historical link to our laws is dubious at best: Of the Ten Commandments, only three are reflected in our laws: Do not murder, do not steal and do not bear false witness. All three of these are illegal in other cultures that were not in any way influenced by the Ten Commandments.

Other commandments on the list are more problematic: “You shall have no other gods before me” would represent state-sponsored exclusion of any other religion. “You shall not take the name of the Lord in vain” is an obvious act of state-sponsored limitation of freedom of expression. And these posters will lead to lots of kindergarteners asking what “adultery” means.

On a deeper level, the form and content of what they call “the Ten Commandments” differ from religion to religion, denomination to denomination and sect to sect. By choosing one list and numbering system, Louisiana has codified and established the preference for one faith over and above others. Even the Bible itself does not speak with a unified voice: There are many different sets of commandments (Exodus 20, Exodus 34, Deuteronomy 5), and there are more than 600 commandments in the Bible. Choosing these 10 is not a legislative act, it is a religious one, and one that the Louisiana Legislature is not qualified nor empowered to make.

Similarly, the law chooses the King James Version, which is but one option of many English-version Bibles. Not only that, but it edits the passage, removing large sections. Any educated preacher will tell you that by omitting words, you can change the meaning of a passage. For example, the law omits Exodus 20:9-10, which reads, “Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: In it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates…” This section seems to strongly support worker’s rights, which is likely why they decided that though it was good enough for the Bible, it has no place in their policy.

There are deep theological repercussions for all of these choices, about which the Louisiana Legislature either doesn’t know or doesn’t care. Neither is acceptable. With this law, the same party that criticizes governmental overreach and calls for religious freedom is now using the state’s power to establish one favored expression of religious belief. With this law, the same demographic that cries “Indoctrination!” when accurate history is taught or when gay people’s existence is acknowledged is now literally indoctrinating — imposing doctrine — on schoolchildren.

The American Civil Liberties Union has already filed suit, so we can hope that the law will be overturned and its damage to the classroom will be held to a minimum. But what of the damage done to the church? This law weaponizes religion, transforming it from a pathway to meaning and compassion into a cudgel that forces people to fall in lockstep with one regional sect’s appropriation of an ancient tradition.


If, instead of forcing their lifestyle down people’s throats, Louisiana’s elected officials used their position to fulfill scripture’s call to care for those in need, perhaps their state wouldn’t be ranked near the bottom in our nation in child food insecurity. When a religion lives out acts of compassion and service to the poor and hungry, it doesn’t have to slap posters on the walls listing the virtues that it has systemically failed to execute.

This law is yet another example of politically motivated blurting out of dogma without thoughtfulness or consideration of others. Is inconsiderate thoughtlessness really how Louisiana wants to depict the Bible?

The Rev. Matthew Schultz is an Anchorage pastor and a member of the steering committee of Christians for Equality.

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