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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Ed Pilkington

Louisiana families file lawsuit against Ten Commandments display in schools

A copy of the Ten Commandments posted in a hallway at the Georgia state capitol building in Atlanta.
A copy of the Ten Commandments posted in a hallway at the Georgia state capitol building in Atlanta. Photograph: John Bazemore/AP

Several Louisiana families backed by human rights groups have lodged a lawsuit in federal court seeking to block the state’s new law forcing public schools to display the Ten Commandments.

The suit was filed with the US district court in Baton Rouge on Monday at the start of what is expected to be an epic legal battle that could end up before the US supreme court. Christian nationalists have been itching for this fight, hoping to destroy the country’s longstanding separation of church and state.

The new law, HB71, was signed by Louisiana’s hard right governor Jeff Landry last week, making the state the first in the nation to order the Ten Commandments to be displayed in all public school classrooms. The law stipulates that the text must be shown exactly as written in the legislation in a frame that is at least 11in by 14 in, and in “large, easily readable font”.

Plaintiffs in Monday’s lawsuit, who include rabbis and pastors, argue that the law is blatantly unconstitutional. It violates both binding precedent from the supreme court that has stood for almost half a century and the establishment and free exercise clauses of the first amendment, they claim.

“It sends the harmful and religiously divisive message that students who do not subscribe to the Ten Commandments do not belong to their own school community,” the suit says.

The legal action points out that a central pillar of the new law – the claim that there is a long tradition linking the Ten Commandments to public education in the US – is based on a fabrication. HB71 quotes James Madison, the fourth president, as saying: “We have staked the whole future of our new nation … upon the capacity of each of ourselves to govern ourselves according to the moral principles of the 10 Commandments.”

That quote is fictitious; it is to be found in none of Madison’s writings or speeches. It appears to have been drawn from a conspiracy theory popularized by the late rightwing talk show host Rush Limbaugh.

Talking to reporters on Monday, one of the plaintiffs, Reverend Jeff Sims, said that HB71 “doesn’t just interfere with my and my children’s religious freedom, it tramples on it”. Sims, a minister in the Presbyterian Church USA and the father of three kids in Louisiana public schools, added that “the separation of church and state means that families get to decide if, when and how their children should be introduced to religious scripts and texts”.

Another plaintiff, Joshua Herlands, a Jewish father of two children in state elementary schools, said the Ten Commandments as promoted by the new law “are not the commandments as I and many Jews know them”. In his practice of Judaism, for instance, they spell the Lord’s name as G-d, whereas in the bill it is written in full as God.

“The displays distort the Jewish significance of the Ten Commandments, and send the troubling message to students, including my kids, that they may be lesser in the eyes of the government,” Herlands said.

A third plaintiff, the Unitarian Universalist minister Reverend Darcy Roake, said she joined the suit because “we believe it is our children’s right to decide what, if any, faith traditions they will follow”.

The new law will impact 680,000 students in more than 1,300 public schools across Louisiana. The plaintiffs, who are backed by a coalition of human rights groups including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), are hoping that the federal court will impose an immediate injunction to stop the requirement from going ahead.

A full hearing would then be held this summer in which the plaintiffs would press for a permanent block.

Rachel Laser, president of Americans United for Separation of Church and State which is supporting the lawsuit, warned that “Christian nationalism is on the march across this country”. She said that politicians nationwide were trying to “violate the religious freedom principles that are core to this country’s founding that everyone should be free to live as themselves”.

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