North Dakota Bill to Allow Public Schools to Post Ten Commandments is Unnecessary, Unconstitutional

February 2, 2021 10:30 am

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ACLU of North Dakota
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The ACLU of North Dakota opposes Senate Bill 2308, legislation that would allow public schools to post copies of the Ten Commandments in classrooms and other school spaces. It’s an unnecessary, unconstitutional bill that, if passed, would likely mean costly litigation for North Dakota schools.

Students already have the right to engage in religious exercise and expression at school under current law. Students may, for example, voluntarily pray, real religious literature or engage in other religious activities during recess or lunch. The ACLU has long worked to protect the religious exercise and religious expression rights of students of all faiths in public schools.

But there’s a stark difference between voluntary, student-initiated religious exercise and school-sponsored promotion of religion. Court precedent confirms this.

More than 40 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court said in Stone v. Graham that “if the posted copies of the Ten Commandments are to have any effect at all, it will be to induce the schoolchildren to read, meditate upon, perhaps to venerate and obey the Commandments. However desirable this might be as a matter of private devotion, it is not a permissible state objective under the Establishment Clause.”

Additionally, in a lawsuit brought by the ACLU shortly before the Supreme Court issued its ruling in Stone, the U.S. District Court for the District of North Dakota struck down a similar North Dakota law that required public schools to display the Ten Commandments in classrooms.

“All students, regardless of their faith, should feel safe and welcome in our public schools,” said Libby Skarin, ACLU of North Dakota campaigns director. “Displaying the Ten Commandments in classrooms and other school spaces would convey the opposite message. It would make clear that school officials favor students of certain faiths and that those who do not subscribe to officials’ preferred faith are outsiders. This exclusionary message would be divisive and constitutionally impermissible.”

Senate Bill 2308 is scheduled to be heard in the Senate Judiciary Committee today. The ACLU of North Dakota provided written testimony, available here: https://www.aclund.org/sites/default/files/field_documents/02.02.2021.ac…

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