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Some legislators lean into religion in public education as Supreme Court leans right

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(WASHINGTON) — In 1980, the U.S. Supreme Court determined that Kentucky’s then-law requiring that a copy of the Ten Commandments be posted in public classrooms “had no secular legislative purpose” and was “plainly religious in nature.”

Nearly twenty years before that, the Supreme Court ruled that school-sponsored devotional prayer and Bible readings in public schools are unconstitutional.

These decades-old legal precedents, and others, haven’t stopped a recent wave of legislation mandating the teaching of religious texts in public schools.

Some of the legislators advocating to include the Bible and the Ten Commandments in public education argue that they have historical and moral value in the classroom, and also add educational context to American history.

However, these policies have prompted concerns from legal experts and religious freedom advocates who say that such mandates violate the First Amendment’s establishment clause, which states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”

“It was very clear that no public official should be stating religious truths or teaching religious truth. That’s not for public officials to do or government officials to do,” Richard Schragger, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law, told ABC News.

“The worry has always been that if the government starts to take sides in promulgating religious truth, that will create divisiveness and religious conflict,” Schragger continued. “And there was ample proof of that, that the founders were quite aware of, particularly Protestant Catholic conflict in Europe.”

The Supreme Court has signaled that it’s open to hearing challenges regarding just how separate the church and state need to be. In 2022, the court sided with a high school football coach in Washington state, ruling that the Constitution does not prohibit public school employees from praying aloud on the job near students.

Since then, the push to enforce religion-based school requirements has gained renewed traction.

“Up until now, the Supreme Court decisions that restrict these kinds of practices in public schools have been a barrier to the enactment of those kinds of policies,” said Schragger, arguing that the court’s present conservative majority has “generated encouragement for state legislators to push the boundaries of acceptable public religious practices.”

The debate over religious texts in public classrooms

In Oklahoma, public schools have been ordered to incorporate the Bible into lessons for grades 5 through 12 by State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters.

Walters called the Bible an “indispensable historical and cultural touchstone,” in a June 27 statement about the announcement.

Without “basic knowledge” of the Bible, Walters claimed, “Oklahoma students are unable to properly contextualize the foundation of our nation which is why Oklahoma educational standards provide for its instruction. This is not merely an educational directive but a crucial step in ensuring our students grasp the core values and historical context of our country.”

The Oklahoma Education Association – a collective of educators, administrators, and other school employees – called the requirement religious “indoctrination.” The group criticized Walters for forcing educators in a position to potentially violate the Constitution.

“Teaching about the historical context of religion (and the Bible) is permissible; however, teaching religious doctrine is not permissible. Public schools cannot indoctrinate students with a particular religious belief or religious curriculum,” the organization said in a statement to ABC News.

Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU), told ABC News that she doesn’t oppose the idea of teaching religion as a part of history. However, her organization objects to teaching the Bible as truth or “core values,” as Walters stated, “because that’s favoring one set of religious views over others and over non religion, and that’s expressly prohibited by our Constitution.”

In Louisiana, a new law, HB71, mandates that all public schools, from kindergarten to the collegiate level, must display the Ten Commandments, a set of religious mandates from the Bible’s Old Testament, in every classroom on “a poster or framed document that is at least 11 inches by 14 inches.”

Lawmakers in other states have introduced similar legislation, including Arizona, Georgia, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Utah, and West Virginia.

Republican state Rep. Dodie Horton, HB71’s primary sponsor, said during an April hearing that the bill is not about “preaching a Christian religion. It’s not preaching any religion. It’s teaching a moral code,” according to local news outlet WWL-TV.

The law argues that the Ten Commandments are also historically significant, reflecting “the understanding of the founders of our nation with respect to the necessity of civic morality to a functional self-government.”

The law is already facing legal backlash, with a lawsuit from a multifaith group of families challenging the new law in court.

“Permanently posting the Ten Commandments in every Louisiana public school classroom – rendering them unavoidable – unconstitutionally pressures students into religious observance, veneration and adoption of the state’s favored religious scripture,” the complaint reads.

In Florida, Louisiana and Texas, new laws authorize schools to hire or allow volunteer religious chaplains to provide counseling support to students. In Florida, the counselors do not need to be licensed.

“Faith leaders and civic organizations are important additional resources for students who may be facing challenges or need to build community and camaraderie,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said in a statement upon signing the bill into law in April.

AU’s Laser said she believes that growing efforts to dismantle decades-old precedent regarding legally mandated teaching of religion in public schools is part of push to turn back the clock on progress and diversity. She said she expects to see further Supreme Court challenges to similar precedents.

“This court has opened an invitation to religious extremists to challenge long standing protections that have been fundamental to our growth, towards our promises as a nation, and Christian nationalists are taking them up on it,” said Laser.

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