Biblical push in schools poses major test for separation of church and state



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Officials in red states are increasingly using schools to test the wall between church and state.  

Oklahoma joined Louisiana last week in insisting that biblical teachings have a place in the classroom, alarming civil liberties groups who say lawmakers are trying to evangelize students in taxpayer-funded schools. 

“The goal of all of these strategies is to assert Christian favor and privilege in America and to fight democracy’s steady march towards equality for all. It’s very much a backlash to all the progress that our society has made in recent times towards LGBTQ equality, towards women’s equality, towards racial equality and Black and brown equality,” said Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. 

Multiple Republican states have instituted policies in recent years that bring Christianity closer to the classroom, including Texas and Florida, where schools are now allowed to employ chaplains to serve in mental health roles.  

But Louisiana kicked things up a notch with a new law to require the Ten Commandments on posters in every public school classroom, along with three paragraphs about how the Judeo-Christian document influenced the nation’s founding.  

“Look, when the Supreme Court meets, the doors of the Supreme Court on the backside have the Ten Commandments. Moses faces the U.S. Speaker of the House in the House chamber. He is the original giver of law,” Gov. Jeff Landry (R) said. “Most of our laws in this country are founded on the Ten Commandments, what’s the big problem? And that’s the part I don’t understand.” 

Multiple civil liberties groups have sued over the Louisiana law, arguing it violates the First Amendment.

“Politicians have no business imposing their preferred religious doctrine on students and families in public schools,” the American Civil Liberties Union said in a statement.

And then, in Oklahoma last week, State Superintendent Ryan Walters said the Bible and Ten Commandments must be incorporated into public school curricula. 

His memo to schools came days after the courts struck down as constitutional the nation’s first religious charter school — which had been approved in Oklahoma.  

“I think in our law, it’s been pretty clear for a while that there’s a line between using the Bible as part of a broader education about history and literature, which is OK, but distinguishing that from officially using the curriculum for religious formation, religious instruction and religious evangelization,” said Richard Garnett, director for the program on Church, State and Society at the University of Notre Dame Law School. “So if you’re going to have the Bible in the public schools, whether it’s Oklahoma or anywhere else, I think schools are going to have to be sensitive to the fact that this line exists, and they need to be careful not to cross it.” 

Experts and advocates say there are multiple reasons the push to get more religion in schools has been getting more traction, but the biggest is the conservative Supreme Court, which has shown it is willing to overturn precedent and in 2022 allowed a public school coach to pray on a football field after a game.  

“Emboldened Christian nationalists are competing with each other to get the best case before the Supreme Court,” Laser said.  

But advocates for religion in schools have pointed to the tremendous historical impact of the Bible and its teachings on Western culture and government.

“The Bible has influenced human history for thousands of years. It played a significant role in the development of Western civilization — from literature and the arts to our laws and form of government. The Supreme Court has recognized that public schools can constitutionally use the Bible in the study of history, civilization and more. It is natural that Americans want to preserve this pillar of our society as part of the public square and ensure that students are equipped with the basic biblical literacy necessary to fully appreciate and understand our culture and history,” said Greg Chafuen, legal counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom.  

The focus on how Christianity has influenced the U.S. and its culture can be one way to get it into lesson plays, but laws such as the one in Louisiana pose a steeper climb, said Neil McCluskey, director for the Center for Educational Freedom at the CATO Institute. 

“I think that where they would have, I would say, you know, better than 50/50 chance of succeeding is if you if they put it in the curriculum or curricula, and they say, ‘Look, we’re including religion because it is totally within the bounds of public schooling to study religion,’” he said, adding advocates could always say “it’s in here, not to make people into Christians, but because Christianity was a major part of American history.” 

And while both sides are adamant the law is on their side, no one is discounting the possibility of a sweeping ruling vastly changing public education from the Supreme Court, which has issued multiple landscape-shifting decisions within the past week alone.

McCluskey points to the religious Catholic charter school that was struck down in Oklahoma as one of the more interesting cases coming up on the topic.  

”Here’s the problem is you have these public schools that anybody can apply to and found except for religious people,” he said, pointing to examples such as a Montessori school that has specific teachings around an ideology that is nonreligious.  

“You can have anything except religious schools. There’s good reasons for that because the Constitution says that the government can’t advance any particular religion, but it is discrimination against religion to say you can have anything that’s secular, but you can’t have a religious school,” he added. “And so, it will be interesting, if this is appealed to the federal courts and eventually reach the Supreme Court, how their rule, whether it is the discrimination against religion that will be most important or having government advancing religion that’s the biggest concern.” 



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