Opinion: What these states get wrong about the Bible and the Ten Commandments

Editor’s Note: Amanda Tyler is the executive director of BJC (Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty), lead organizer of Christians Against Christian Nationalism, co-host of the Respecting Religion podcast and author of the book “How to End Christian Nationalism.” The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN. 

It has been an especially active few weeks for news about religion in public schools. The Texas Education Agency proposed a new curriculum that would incorporate teaching Biblical stories into reading lessons in grades as young as kindergarten. On June 19, Louisiana Gov. Jeff Landry signed a law requiring the posting of the Ten Commandments in all public school classrooms in the state. One week later, Oklahoma’s State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters abruptly issued a memorandum requiring all schools in his state “to incorporate the Bible, which includes the Ten Commandments, as an instructional support into the curriculum” in grades five through 12, underlining “immediate and strict compliance.”

Amanda Tyler - Courtesy BJC
Amanda Tyler - Courtesy BJC

What exactly is going on here? Public schools are not Sunday schools, and families should feel free to send their children to school without worrying about state officials interfering in their choices about religious instruction.

These politically conservative state officials are seemingly making a show of testing the limits of government-sponsored religious instruction and exercise in public schools, emboldened by the US Supreme Court’s recent decisions.

In its 2022 opinion in Kennedy v. Bremerton, the court abandoned prior standards for determining if government action violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment, and it did so without providing clear guidance for lower courts in future cases.

But the court conspicuously did not overturn prior precedents from the 1960s that held compulsory Bible readings and government-led prayer in schools to be unconstitutional or a 1980 case that struck down a Kentucky law that mandated the posting of the Ten Commandments in public schools.

These officials in Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma are going too far. They threaten the careful balance worked out over more than half a century by the courts, presidential administrations from both parties and a diverse set of interest groups about how best to recognize the religious freedom rights of students, teachers and administrators in our pluralistic public schools.

These recent developments are also just the latest examples of a concerted strategy to inject the political ideology of Christian nationalism into public education.

Christian nationalism, which merges Christian and American identities, relies on a false narrative of the US as a “Christian nation” — a country founded by Christians and for Christians. Such mythology betrays our history and constitutional framework, which created a separation between the institutions of religion and government so that all religions could flourish without the state’s control.

In his memo, Walters wrote that the Bible must be studied by Oklahoma students beginning in fifth grade “as an appropriate study of history, civilization, ethics, comparative religion, or the like, as well as for their substantial influence on our nation’s founders and the foundational principles of our Constitution.” But his reasoning is faulty, and his understanding of civics is profoundly misguided. The Constitution makes no mention of God or Christianity, and its sole reference to religion is Article VI’s prohibition against religious tests for public office.

Walters is right to note that the Bible can be used in certain courses and in age-appropriate ways to provide additional context to understand subjects like art historyliterature and world religions. But the problem comes when he claims that studying the Bible is “a crucial step in ensuring our students grasp the core values and historical context of our country.” Bible study is neither helpful nor necessary for students to understand constitutional law or civics because our laws are secular and not based on the Ten Commandments (or any other religious text).

Still, encouraging news came from Oklahoma last week, with the state’s Supreme Court striking down a plan to establish the first public religious charter school, based on its application of a provision in the Oklahoma state constitution and Oklahoma statutory law, as well as the First Amendment.

Like religious instruction in public schools, the public funding of religion undermines fundamental principles of religious freedom for all. By merging religious and political authority, taxpayer funding of religious schools threatens the rights of people of all faiths — and those of no faith.

Using taxpayer money to fund religion makes religion beholden to the state. The majority of the Oklahoma Supreme Court recognized that enforcing the contract with the religious charter school “would create a slippery slope and what the framers warned against — the destruction of Oklahomans’ freedom to practice religion without fear of governmental intervention.”

Walters was predictably incensed by the court’s ruling, vowing to fight it. But Americans concerned about preserving religious freedom in public schools should take some encouragement from last week’s developments in Oklahoma: As long as the rule of law is maintained, there are still federal and state constitutional guardrails in place to keep this push for theocracy from taking hold.

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