America’s public schools are the primary legal battleground for the remaining vestiges of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.
The Supreme Court’s unfortunately eventful term earlier this year has resulted in the Religious Right becoming increasingly bold in its attempt to further dismantle the wall between state and church. Not surprisingly, misinformation about the state of the law in the public school context has spread rampantly. Christian nationalist groups have taken this opportunity to call on their followers to push the boundaries of what is permissible in our nation’s public schools. One such group, First Liberty, has urged its members to take action to “put religious displays back where they belong” by, among other things, claiming “a teacher can put up a Ten Commandments poster in her classroom.” This is false.
It’s illegal for public school teachers to display the Ten Commandments in their classrooms or for public schools to display them anywhere else in a school building. This has been the state of the law for over 40 years.
In the 1980 case Stone v. Graham, the Supreme Court struck down a Kentucky law requiring that a copy of the Ten Commandments be posted on the wall of each public classroom on the grounds that it violated the Establishment Clause. As the court explained:
Perhaps surprisingly, I selected the former option. I raised my hand and openly stated that I wasn’t Christian and that it was entirely inaccurate and inappropriate to make that assumption. I’m lucky in that two other students followed right behind me, willingly outing themselves as atheists and agnostics and reiterating how straight up wrong it was for a public school teacher to just assume that all 20-plus students in a class must be Christians. While the presence of allies certainly made that experience far better than it could have been, the fact I remember it so clearly more than 10 years later bears witness to how much of an impact that moment had for me, and how deeply disturbing moments like that often are for students who don’t subscribe to the majority religion.
Many Christian nationalists and members of the broader Religious Right take any attempt to keep public education secular as a direct attack on their beliefs. They might say: “Why is it such a big deal for a teacher to have a Ten Commandments poster in their classroom? It’s not like they’re forcing students to convert. And shouldn’t students learn to tolerate and accept that some people are going to have different religious views than them?” Did you hear that whooshing noise? That was the sound of the point flying straight over their heads.
A teacher displaying the Ten Commandments in their classroom sends a message to students that those who share this Judeo-Christian belief are favored and those who do not are disfavored. In the context of a public school, it is the responsibility of the school district and its teachers to maintain neutrality between religions and between religion and nonreligion. Displays of religious text and iconography in classrooms create divisiveness, not tolerance. When a teacher needlessly inserts their own religious viewpoints and beliefs into the classroom, they actually stifle dissenting opinions and open discussion, hindering the educational goals of teaching students tolerance and acceptance.
And contrary to Christian nationalist rhetoric, the Ten Commandments are far from a foundational document for the U.S. Constitution or legal system. As the Supreme Court pointed out in the Stone case, only six of the 10 commandments even have anything to do with morality — the rest are entirely religious in nature.The Framers of the Constitution were Enlightenment-era thinkers, many of them Deists, who believed that human experience and rationality, not religious dogma, should guide one’s beliefs. It’s no mistake then that the Constitution makes no mention of God or the bible or the Ten Commandments. In fact, the only reference to religion in the Constitution apart from the religion clauses is in Article VI, which forbids religious tests for public office. (For more, see “What’s Wrong with the Ten Commandments?”)
The simple truth is that Christian nationalists are at best ignorant and at worst liars when they assert that the Ten Commandments “belong” in the public schools. In reality, the Ten Commandments and all other religious messages and iconography have no place in our secular public schools, legally, historically or ethically.
If you’re a student or know a student whose constitutional rights have been violated by their public school, please report the violation to FFRF.