Clergy, Public-School Parents Sue to Block Louisiana Law Requiring Public Schools to Display the Ten Commandments

Affiliate: ACLU of Louisiana
June 24, 2024 3:30 pm

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BATON ROUGE, La. — A multi-faith group of nine Louisiana families with children in public schools filed suit in federal court today to block H.B. 71, a new state law requiring all public elementary, secondary, and postsecondary schools to display the Ten Commandments in every classroom. The plaintiffs in Roake v. Brumley, including Jewish parents and parents who are pastors and reverends, are represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and the Freedom from Religion Foundation, with Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP serving as pro bono counsel.

In their complaint filed today in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana, the plaintiffs, who are Jewish, Christian, Unitarian Universalist, and non-religious, assert that the newly enacted statute violates longstanding U.S. Supreme Court precedent and the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment. More than 40 years ago, in Stone v. Graham, the Supreme Court overturned a similar state law, holding that the separation of church and state bars public schools from posting the Ten Commandments in classrooms. No other state requires the Ten Commandments to be displayed in public schools.

The complaint further alleges that H.B. 71 “substantially interferes with and burdens” parents’ First Amendment right to direct their children’s religious education and upbringing, and that, in approving and mandating the display of a specific version of the Ten Commandments, the law runs afoul of the First Amendment’s prohibition against the government taking sides on questions of theological debate. Moreover, the complaint highlights the religiously coercive nature of the displays mandated by H.B. 71:

“Permanently posting the Ten Commandments in every Louisiana public-school classroom–rendering them unavoidable– unconstitutionally pressures students into religious observance, veneration, and adoption of the state’s favored religious scripture. It also sends the harmful and religiously divisive message that students who do not subscribe to the Ten Commandments—or, more precisely, to the specific version of the Ten Commandments that H.B. 71 requires schools to display—do not belong in their own school community and should refrain from expressing any faith practices or beliefs that are not aligned with the state’s religious preferences.”

Plaintiffs include: Unitarian Universalist minister, Rev. Darcy Roake, her husband Adrian Van Young, and their two children; Rev. Jeff Sims, a Presbyterian (U.S.A.) minister, and his three children; nonreligious parents Jennifer Harding and Benjamin Owens and their child; Erin and David Hawley and their two children–a Unitarian Universalist family; Dustin McCrory, an atheist, and his three children; Christy Alkire, who is nonreligious, and her child; and Joshua Herlands, who is Jewish and has two elementary-age children.

In connection with today’s filing, plaintiffs in the case issued the following statements:

Reverend Darcy Roake & Adrian Van Young

“As an interfaith family, we strongly value religious inclusion and diversity, and we teach our children that all people are equal and have inherent dignity and worth. The Ten Commandments displays required by this law fly in the face of these values and send a message of religious intolerance. They will not only undermine our ability to instill these values in our children, but they will also help create an unwelcoming and oppressive school environment for children, like ours, who don’t believe in the state’s official version of scripture. We believe that no child should feel excluded in public school because of their family’s faith tradition.”

Reverend Jeff Sims

“By favoring one version of the Ten Commandments and mandating that it be posted in public schools, the government is intruding on deeply personal matters of religion. I believe that it’s critical for my children to receive and understand scripture within the context of our faith, which honors God’s gift of diversity and teaches that all people are equal. This law sends a contrary message of religious intolerance that one denomination or faith system is officially preferable to others, and that those who don’t adhere to it are lesser in worth and status. As a pastor and father, I cannot, in good conscience, sit by silently while our political representatives usurp God’s authority for themselves and trample our fundamental religious-freedom rights.”

Jennifer Harding and Benjamin Owens

“As a nonreligious family, we oppose the government forcibly subjecting our child to a religious scripture that we don’t believe in. The State of Louisiana should not direct a religious upbringing of our child or require students to observe the state’s preferred religious doctrine in every classroom.”

Erin Hawley and David Hawley

“We instill moral and ethical values in our children through positive concepts, such as love and caring for others, not biblical commandments. As Unitarian Universalists, we strongly believe that every person has the right to undertake a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. That cannot happen when the government forces scripture on people, especially children—who are at the beginning of their spiritual journeys.”

Joshua Herlands

“As a parent, an American, and a Jew, I am appalled that state lawmakers are forcing public schools to post a specific version of the Ten Commandments in every classroom. These displays distort the Jewish significance of the Ten Commandments and send the troubling message to students that one set of religious laws is favored over all others. Tolerance is at the heart of our family’s practice of Judaism, and this effort to evangelize students, including my children, is antithetical to our core religious beliefs and our values as Americans.”

In connection with today’s filing, the civil-rights organizations representing the plaintiffs issued the following statements:

“This law is a disturbing abuse of power by state officials,” said Heather L. Weaver, senior staff attorney for the ACLU’s Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. “Louisiana law requires children to attend school so they can be educated, not evangelized. In bringing today’s lawsuit, we intend to make sure that Louisiana public schools remain welcoming to all students, regardless of their faith.”

“By filing this lawsuit, Louisianans clap back and let the Governor know he can’t use religion as a cover for repression,” said Alanah Odoms, executive director of the ACLU of Louisiana. “Public schools are not Sunday schools. We must protect the individual right of students and families to choose their own faith or no faith at all. The separation of church and state is a bedrock of our nation’s founding principles; the ten commandments are not.”

“This lawsuit is necessary to protect the religious freedom of Louisiana public schoolchildren and their families,” said Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “Not just in Louisiana, but all across the country, Christian Nationalists are seeking to infiltrate our public schools and force everyone to live by their beliefs. Not under our watch. Secular, inclusive public schools that welcome all students regardless of their belief system form the backbone of our diverse and religiously pluralistic communities. This nation must recommit to our foundational principle of church-state separation before it’s too late. Public education, religious freedom and democracy are all on the line.”

“A state may not force religion upon a captive audience of young and impressionable students with varying religions — or none at all,” said FFRF Legal Director Patrick Elliott. “We look forward to protecting the constitutional rights of all families in Louisiana.”

Jon Youngwood, Global Co-Chair of the Litigation Department at Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP, added, “As the Complaint states, Louisiana’s law inhibits our clients’ First Amendment rights to choose whether and how they engage with religious doctrines. We look forward to expeditiously presenting this case to the district court for a speedy resolution.”

A copy of the complaint can be found here:

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