Sorry, you need to enable JavaScript to visit this website.

Where should state be with Commandments?

Sunday, May 21, 2023

The inspiration for Sen. Phil King’s bill is the 2022 Supreme Court case Kennedy v. Bremerton about a coach’s prayers.

Our state senators recently emerged from their legislative chamber with a new mandate for public schools: That every single one of their classrooms display a poster of the Ten Commandments large enough to be legible to anyone in the room. The bill by Sen. Phil King, R-Weatherford, could become law if the House also gives its blessing. The idea, according to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, is to make students better Texans by bringing the commandments to schools. The U.S. Supreme Court explicitly banned displays of the Ten Commandments in public classrooms in 1980 because they were “plainly religious in nature.”

However, legislators have been emboldened by the new conservative majority of the court, which last year tossed the legal test under which many prior First Amendment cases were decided, including the case involving the Ten Commandments in schools.

In an analysis of his bill, King stated matter-of-factly that the 1980 case no longer applies. It’s a bold claim given that freedom of religion and potential religious abuse by the government are matters of the most serious public concern. The Senate is taking the assurances of King and his supporters as gospel, likely setting up Texas for costly lawsuits if his bill becomes law. We understand the impetus to expose Texas children to a familiar moral code when the internet bombards our kids daily with troubling and confusing messages.

But the fact remains that public education must be secular in nature, and the Ten Commandments are an explicitly religious text that demands the worship of God and the observance of the Sabbath. Our Constitution allows students to pray and read religious texts in school if they choose to, but children cannot and should not be pressed by their school to embrace any one faith.

The inspiration for King’s bill is Kennedy v. Bremerton, a 2022 case involving a Washington football coach who was suspended by his public school district for praying on the 50-yard line after games.

The school district feared that the coach’s actions were a violation of the Constitution’s prohibition on the government promoting a religion.

A 6-3 majority of the Supreme Court, however, ruled that the coach’s prayers were a private expression of his faith and not a government endorsement of his religious beliefs. The high court officially killed a three-part legal analysis known as the Lemon test that weighed whether a law had a secular purpose, among other things.

Instead, it called for consideration of historical practices. Supporters of King’s bill point to things such as the inclusion of the Decalogue in The New England Primer, a book used by American schoolchildren in the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries. The book was written for our country’s then mostly Protestant population; the United States of today is much more diverse, and a growing number of Americans are nonreligious. It’s also worth noting that the Kennedy case deals with the question of whether a school employee’s prayer was private speech and not with clearly school-sponsored materials enshrining a religious code devoid of any other context. A guiding principle for past Supreme Court decisions regarding religion in schools has been whether schools were subtly or directly coercing students to embrace a religious tradition.

In fact, coercion was a consideration in the Kennedy case, but the high court found that the football coach had not crossed a line. We worry that the same cannot be said of the Texas Senate.

San Marcos Record

(512) 392-2458
P.O. Box 1109, San Marcos, TX 78666