‘I Can’t Wait to Be Sued’: Louisiana Ten Commandments Law Not Just About Schools

Four things to know about a new skirmish in a religious right fight to reverse a 44-year-old legal precedent on the separation of church and state.

Louisiana Gov. Jeff Landry (Meghan Gallagher/Getty Images)

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As he prepared recently to sign a bill requiring public schools, colleges and universities to display a state-approved version of the Ten Commandments in classrooms, Louisiana Gov. Jeff Landry made it clear he was spoiling for a fight. 

“I can’t wait to be sued,” he told attendees at a GOP fundraiser. 

Within days, nine families with children in Louisiana schools delivered. Represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans United for Separation of Church & State and the Freedom from Religion Foundation, the plaintiffs include atheists, Jews, and Presbyterian and Unitarian Universalist clergy, among others.

“All of these students will be forcibly subjected to scriptural dictates, day in and day out, including: ‘I AM the LORD thy God’; ‘Thou shalt have no other gods before me’; ‘Thou shalt not take the Name of the Lord thy God in vain’; ‘Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy’; and ‘Honor thy father and thy mother, that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee,’ ” the complaint asserts. “This simply cannot be reconciled with the fundamental religious-freedom principles that animated the founding of our nation.”

The first mandate of its kind in more than 40 years, the law calls for classroom posters at least 11 by 14 inches in size displaying a state-approved version of the biblical laws in a “large, easily readable font,” accompanied by a statement describing “the history of the 10 Commandments in American Public Education.”

“If you want to respect the rule of law, you got to start from the original law given, which was Moses’,” Landry said. “He got his commandments from God.” 

Legal and political analysts say they have no doubt Landry wants students to absorb the religious directives, but they also believe the law was crafted with a larger goal: to provoke a suit that could tee up a case that would allow the U.S. Supreme Court — whose conservative supermajority dispensed with precedent when it overturned Roe vs. Wade — to reinterpret the longstanding constitutional separation of church and state. 

Far-right lawmakers in Texas, Utah and South Carolina this year considered bills that would have required classroom displays of the commandments, part of a wave of legislation that followed a 2022 Supreme Court ruling allowing a high school football coach to pray with his team on the field. 

Shortly after the Louisiana lawsuit was filed, Oklahoma Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters ordered schools in his state to begin teaching the Bible, “which includes the Ten Commandments,” in classrooms. “Immediate and strict compliance is expected,” his order warned. 

Walters’s order came two days after the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled that the Catholic archdiocese’s plan to open a religious charter school violated the state and U.S. constitutions as well as a law requiring Oklahoma public schools to be nonsectarian.    

The Louisiana suit was filed in federal court in Baton Rouge. Defendants include state Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley, the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, and five school districts, including those in Orleans and East Baton Rouge parishes. The plaintiffs want the court to stop the law from going into effect in January while the case proceeds. 

They have asked the court to simply declare the law unconstitutional. Whatever the outcome at the local level, the case will almost certainly be appealed to the 5th Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals. The Supreme Court has taken up a number of 5th Circuit decisions in recent years.    

Here are four things to know about the law and the suit seeking to have it thrown out. 

Why Louisiana, and why now? 

Until this year, Louisiana had a term-limited Democratic governor, John bel Edwards, who blocked many — but not all — of the religious right’s legislative salvos. With Republican supermajorities in both legislative chambers, Landry’s election last fall cemented a political trifecta for GOP control.

Landry has moved swiftly. In addition to the Ten Commandments edict, he has enacted laws declaring abortion pills dangerous controlled substances, expanding execution methods, allowing concealed carry of a gun without a permit, enabling judges to order the castration of child rapists and empowering law enforcement officers to arrest migrants who enter the country illegally. 

Other education-related measures moving through the Louisiana statehouse on his watch include a “Don’t Say Gay” bill, restrictions on students’ use of preferred pronouns and names in schools and a requirement that students use school bathrooms and locker rooms corresponding to their sex assigned at birth.

Landry is one of eight governors suing the Biden administration over its guidance on Title IX’s prohibition against gender discrimination. In June, in a dispute headed to the 5th Circuit, a federal judge sided with Landry in ruling that the guidance may not be enforced while the Title IX suit is pending. 

Some political commentators believe the governor has tapped pent-up Republican demand for more conservative laws, while others point to Landry’s vault to national prominence as possibly positioning him for higher office. His declaration that he hoped to be sued over the Ten Commandments law was part of a keynote he delivered at a political fundraiser in Tennessee.  

But perhaps most significant, Louisiana is in the 5th Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals.

Why the 5th Circuit? 

During the 1960s and ’70s, the 5th Circuit was known for its staunch defense of civil rights laws in the six Deep South states it then covered. As the population in those states grew, however, the court’s mushrooming docket became unwieldy. Congress worried that splitting the circuit into two appellate courts would weaken anti-discrimination efforts. 

In 1981, Congress carved off the circuit’s three easternmost states — Alabama, Georgia and Florida — creating the 11th Circuit. Mississippi, Texas and Louisiana remained in a reorganized 5th Circuit, rounded out by numerous judges appointed by then-President Jimmy Carter. 

Now, however, the 5th has become the most conservative court in the nation. Twelve of its 17 active judges are Republican appointees, six of them nominated by former President Donald Trump. The circuit has since become a hotbed of model legislation drafted by the conservative Christian legal advocacy group Alliance Defending Freedom and others hoping to advance cases — most notably the Mississippi suit that overturned abortion rights, Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health Organization — that could allow the U.S. Supreme Court to shift precedents.

Recently, though, a number of decisions coming out of the circuit have proven too ideological for the Supreme Court’s conservative supermajority, which this term struck down a ruling allowing domestic abusers to own guns and rejected a Texas law outlawing mifepristone, a legal drug used in medical abortions.  

Louisiana’s Ten Commandments law “may be a bridge too far” for Supreme Court Justices Brett Kavanaugh, Amy Coney Barrett and John Roberts, says Lawrence Moore, a Jesuit priest and law professor at Loyola University New Orleans. When the high court took up a Kentucky case involving the display of the Ten Commandments in classrooms 44 years ago, he notes, it ruled the practice unconstitutional without so much as hearing oral arguments.  

Why does the law require specific words be used to express the commandments?

In mandating the use of a particular, Protestant version, critics say, the law’s proponents are essentially daring the courts to reinterpret the opening line of the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. “

The Louisiana law, Moore says, goes straight to the heart of tension that has always existed in First Amendment cases: the Constitution’s guarantee of the right of free religious expression and its prohibition against the creation of a state religion — the Establishment Clause. As willing to overturn longstanding precedent as it has been, he says, this court may see the establishment of state religion — in this case, Protestantism — as curtailing religious liberty by allowing Louisiana’s government to pressure students to not express their own, differing, religious beliefs. 

A number of faiths indeed uphold the tenets of the Ten Commandments, but in various ways. Catholics — believed to be Louisiana’s largest faith group — Jews and Protestants differ in how they number, organize and translate the commandments from Hebrew to English. 

What is the rationale for the law’s assertion that the Ten Commandments play a historical role in public education?

In Stone vs. Graham, the 1980 case that set the existing precedent, the high court found that displaying the commandments in classrooms served no secular purpose. In drawing a line back to the founders — and beyond, to Moses — the groups seeking a new interpretation of the Establishment Clause want to frame the practice as a history lesson.

“Landry and others are saying these are historically relevant ideas,” says Brian Brox, a professor of political science at Tulane University. 

The plaintiffs suing to overturn the law accuse Louisiana officials of rewriting American history in an attempt to create a nexus between Christianity and the classroom. In their complaint, they note that the statute asserts that “James Madison, the fourth President of the United States of America, stated that ‘(w)e have staked the whole future of our new nation . . . upon the capacity of each of ourselves to govern ourselves according to the moral principles of the 10 Commandments.’ ” 

“In fact, the quotation is fabricated,” the complaint asserts. “Madison never said this in any of his public or private writings or in any of his speeches.” 

In fact, Madison — the Constitution’s primary author — wrote, “The purpose of separation of church and state is to keep forever from these shores the ceaseless strife that has soaked the soil of Europe in blood for centuries.”

Christian nationalists, Moore says, “hold that we are a Christian nation. I don’t think that’s true at all — and I say that as a Roman Catholic priest.” 

The Louisiana law also says schools may choose to display the Mayflower Compact — a statement signed during the trans-Atlantic voyage by Protestant separatists who opposed the Church of England — and the Declaration of Independence. 

They can also post the Northwest Ordinance, a 1787 law that established the Northwest Territory and encouraged the creation of schools: “Religion, morality and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” 

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