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Opinion: New Louisiana law threatens the sanctity of the Ten Commandments


Opinion by Eli Federman

(CNN) — This year, the Jewish holiday of Shavuot began on the evening of June 11. The holiday commemorates Moses conveying the Torah (the “Law”) and the Ten Commandments — a central religious text in Christianity, Islam and Judaism — and underscores the deeply religious nature of the commandments.

However, Louisiana’s House Bill 71, signed into law by Republican Gov. Jeff Landry on Wednesday after passing the state House and Senate with overwhelming majorities, attempts to disingenuously secularize this sacred and uniquely religious document by requiring its display in public schools.

This unprecedented law is the first to mandate the display of the Ten Commandments, requiring “elementary, secondary, and postsecondary schools” to display it in “easily readable font” on a poster “at least eleven inches by fourteen inches.” Other states, including UtahTexas and South Carolina, have attempted to pass similar legislation.

In 2022, the Supreme Court ruled that a high school football coach could publicly pray on the 50-yard line immediately after games. Although that ruling was based on the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause, it and others are being misconstrued to help fuel advocates of these constitution-eroding bills that clearly violate the Establishment Clause, which prohibits the government from establishing a “religion.”

HB 71 not only violates the separation of church and state, but harms religion by undermining the commandments’ sanctity. The legislation references civil documents like The Mayflower Compact of 1620, citing phrases such as “a Covenant with Almighty God to ‘form a civil body politic’” in an attempt to put the compact on the same historical footing as the deeply religious Ten Commandments. Such secularization relegates the commandments to a mere historical document, eroding faith, mischaracterizing the origins of scripture and violating the Constitution.

With HB 71, proponents ultimately hope that the Supreme Court will overturn established precedent like Stone v. Graham, which held in 1980 that “requiring the posting of the Ten Commandments in public school rooms has no secular legislative purpose, and is therefore unconstitutional.”

To make the law appear constitutional, supporters claim that the Ten Commandments are historical documents, integral to the foundation of Western civilization. State senators such as Adam Bass gesture to their display at the Supreme Court, where depictions of Moses and the tablets appear in sculptures and carvings. At the same time, the author of the bill, Rep. Dodie Horton, lauds the measure for introducing God and “God’s laws” into the classroom.

The Ten Commandments did influence universal Western principles, including the sanctity of life, the importance of honesty and the need for justice. “Thou shalt not kill” helped develop prohibitions against taking innocent life, while “Thou shalt not steal” helped form the basis for laws protecting property rights. The idea of “not bearing false witness” relates to perjury laws, and to “honor thy father and mother” influenced societal values around family and respect for elders.

In their essence, however, the Ten Commandments are fundamentally religious edicts. Monotheistic faiths like Christianity, Judaism and Islam believe these directives are divine mandates from God to Moses, establishing a moral order deeply rooted in theistic belief. Unlike other scripture, these commandments are described in Exodus as “written with the finger of God.” Why would religious people want children (or anyone) viewing them as primarily historical documents?

Jews worldwide celebrate the profoundly religious holiday of Shavuot through public readings of the Ten Commandments in synagogues. There is even a custom to stay up studying the Torah all night to commemorate the historic revelation and remedy the mistake of the Israelites falling asleep the night before God gave the commandments.

An amendment to HB 71 provided for the concurrent voluntary display of historical documents such as the Mayflower Compact, the Declaration of Independence and the Northwest Ordinance. While attempting to make those documents analogous to the deeply religious text of the Decalogue, forcing religion in classrooms is still evident — displaying the commandments would be required, but the civil documents voluntary.

Of course, putting the commandments on equal footing to those historical documents is an affront to religion, and no reasonable person would agree that a declaration or pledge citing “God” is the same as a religious text described as a product of the “finger of God.”

Furthermore, the Ten Commandments include directives explicitly referencing God and religious observance, such as “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3) and “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8). These commandments enforce specific religious beliefs, unlike the general ethics drawn from other documents like the Declaration of Independence or Magna Carta that also reference God.

What’s next? Interpreting the Sabbath as promoting mere “work-life” balance, or having no other God as some new age warning against the worship of people, materialism or false values? Reframing these religious texts as civil documents robs them of the spirituality integral to religious practice and belief.

HB 71 itself also unconstitutionally takes sides on religious expression since it would require a display of the Protestant version of the Ten Commandments, translated from the King James Bible. Since Catholics, Muslims and Jews have different versions of the commandments, displaying the Protestant version endorses it over other religious versions (and over traditions like Buddhism and Hinduism, which don’t have it at all), violating the separation of church and state.

To further understand the Ten Commandments’ uniquely religious nature even in historical context, consider other ancient legal codes. The Code of Hammurabi references the deity Shamash and provided a comprehensive legal code for Babylon, influenced by the needs and structures of ancient Mesopotamia. Similarly, the Twelve Tables addressed the legal needs of Roman citizens in the 5th century BCE. The Egyptians had the goddess Ma’at governing truth and justice, and the Greeks used their pantheon of 12 Gods to impart moral lessons.

Unlike these legal codes, the Bible describes the Ten Commandments as originating in the wilderness of the Sinai Desert, away from societal influence, underscoring their sacred purpose as divine commandments and not as products of secular human culture or society.

By keeping Ten Commandment displays out of public schools, we respect their sacred religious nature and acknowledge their role in religious traditions like Shavuot observance. We must preserve tradition in preventing the dilution of their significance and ensure that public education remains a neutral space, free from religious endorsement.

This story has been updated to reflect the latest news developments.

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