A bill to require displays of the Ten Commandments in Texas public school classrooms is now in a House committee, after passing the Texas Senate.
Texas reacts to Kennedy case
On April 20, the Texas Senate passed SB 1515, “Relating to the display of the Ten Commandments in public schools.” The vote was 17 to 12 in favor, with two excused absences. SB 1515 went to the Texas House, which referred it to its Public Education Committee at 5:13 p.m. CDT yesterday.
Senator Phil King (R-Weatherford, Texas), author of the legislation, wished to highlight “the role that fundamental religious documents and principles had in American heritage and law.” He also avowed offering this legislation in direct response to a Supreme Court decision from last year. This was the case of Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, 597 US ____ (2022). The Court held that prayer activity on campus, even by faculty or staff, was permissible. In so saying, Judge Neil Gorsuch, writing for the Court, permanently invalidated the “Lemon Test.” (See Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 US 602 (1971)). The court also held that “The Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment protect an individual engaging in a personal religious observance from government reprisal; the Constitution neither mandates nor permits the government to suppress such religious expression.”
Technically Kennedy did not address required or allowed classroom displays. This suggests that Senator King sought to break new ground and extend the range of permissible religious display beyond Kennedy. As further evidence, his colleagues passed another bill authorizing school districts to require “period[s] of prayer and reading of the Bible or other religious text on each school day.”
The Ten Commandments elsewhere
Atheists United has had no comment thus far on this Texas bill. Two years ago they held that any Ten Commandments display in a public school would be unconstitutional. That, of course, was before Kennedy – and also before Carson v. Makin, 596 US ____ (2022). In that case the Court forbade discrimination against religious practitioners or organizations in the distribution of government funds.
Nevertheless, public displays of the Ten Commandments have always faced a takedown, on Lemon or similar grounds. (In one case, an Arkansas man who destroyed two such displays got a Get Out of Jail Free card from a local court!) But no display excited more controversy than Alabama Chief Justice Robert Moore’s monument in the lobby of the Alabama Judicial Building from 2001-3. Justice Moore literally lost his job over that controversy.
But the Carson and Kennedy cases represent a sea change in the federal courts. Texas has decided to test and push the limits of that sea change.
Terry A. Hurlbut has been a student of politics, philosophy, and science for more than 35 years. He is a graduate of Yale College and has served as a physician-level laboratory administrator in a 250-bed community hospital. He also is a serious student of the Bible, is conversant in its two primary original languages, and has followed the creation-science movement closely since 1993.
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