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Lawsuit challenges new Louisiana law requiring classrooms to display the Ten Commandments

FILE - A copy of the Ten Commandments is posted along with other historical documents in a hallway of the Georgia Capitol, Thursday, June 20, 2024, in Atlanta. Civil liberties groups filed a lawsuit Monday, June 24, challenging Louisiana’s new law that requires the Ten Commandments to be displayed in every public school classroom. (AP Photo/John Bazemore, File)

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Civil liberties groups filed a lawsuit Monday to block Louisiana’s new law that requires the Ten Commandments to be displayed in every public school classroom, a measure they contend is unconstitutional.

Plaintiffs in the suit include parents of Louisiana public school children with various religious backgrounds, who are represented by attorneys with the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the New York City law firm Simpson, Thatcher & Bartlett.

“This display sends a message to my children and other students that people of some religious dominations are superior to others,” said the Rev. Jeff Simms, a Presbyterian pastor who is a plaintiff in the suit and father of three children in Louisiana public schools. “This is religious favoritism.”

Under the legislation signed into law by Republican Gov. Jeff Landry last week, all public K-12 classrooms and state-funded universities will be required to display a poster-sized version of the Ten Commandments in “large, easily readable font” next year.

Opponents argue that the law is a violation of separation of church and state and that the display will isolate students, especially those who are not Christian. Proponents say the measure is not solely religious, but that it has historical significance. In the language of the law, the Ten Commandments are “foundational documents of our state and national government.”

Plaintiff Joshua Herlands has two young children in New Orleans public schools who, like their father, are Jewish. There are multiple versions of the Ten Commandments, and Herlands said the specific version mandated for classroom walls does not align with the version from his faith. He worries the display will send a troubling message to his kids and others that “they may be lesser in the eyes of the government.”

“Politicians have absolutely no business forcing their religious beliefs on my kids or any kids, or attempting to indoctrinate them with what they think is the right version of a particular piece of religious text,” Herlands said.

The lawsuit filed Monday seeks a court declaration that the new law, referred to in the lawsuit as HB 71, violates First Amendment clauses forbidding government establishment of religion and guaranteeing religious liberty. It also seeks an order prohibiting the posting of the Ten Commandments in public school classrooms.

“The state’s main interest in passing H.B. 71 was to impose religious beliefs on public-school children, regardless of the harm to students and families,” the lawsuit says. "The law’s primary sponsor and author, Representative Dodie Horton, proclaimed during debate over the bill that it 'seeks to have a display of God’s law in the classroom for children to see what He says is right and what He says is wrong.'"

Defendants include state Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley, members of the state education board and some local school boards.

Landry and Louisiana Attorney General Elizabeth Murrill support the new law, and Murrill has said she is looking forward to defending it. She issued a statement saying she couldn’t comment directly on the lawsuit because she had not yet seen it.

“It seems the ACLU only selectively cares about the First Amendment — it doesn’t care when the Biden administration censors speech or arrests pro-life protesters, but apparently it will fight to prevent posters that discuss our own legal history,” Murrill said in the emailed statement.

The Ten Commandments have long been at the center of lawsuits across the nation.

In 1980, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a similar Kentucky law violated the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution, which says Congress can “make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” The high court found that the law had no secular purpose but rather served a plainly religious purpose.

In a more recent ruling, the Supreme Court held in 2005 that such displays in a pair of Kentucky courthouses violated the Constitution. At the same time, the court upheld a Ten Commandments marker on the grounds of the Texas state Capitol in Austin. Those were 5-4 decisions, but the court’s makeup has changed, with a 6-3 conservative majority now.

Although some people think this case may rise to the level of the U.S. Supreme Court and test the conservative members, lawyers for the plaintiffs say that they think this is a clear-cut case

“We think this is already covered by clear Supreme Court precedent,” said Patrick Elliott, the legal director for the Freedom From Religion Foundation. “We think under current law that we will prevail and it would not be necessary for the Supreme Court to review it.”

Other states, including Texas, Oklahoma and Utah, have attempted to pass requirements that the schools display the Ten Commandments. However, with threats of legal battles, none has the mandate in place except for Louisiana.

The posters in Louisiana, which will be paired with a four-paragraph “context statement” describing how the Ten Commandments “were a prominent part of public education for almost three centuries,” must be in place in classrooms by the start of 2025.

The controversial law comes during a new era of conservative leadership in Louisiana under Landry, who replaced two-term Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards in January. The GOP holds a supermajority in the Legislature, and Republicans hold every statewide elected position, paving the way for lawmakers to push through a conservative agenda.

The case was allotted to U.S. District Judge John deGravelles, nominated to the federal bench by former President Barack Obama.

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McGill reported from New Orleans.

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This story has been corrected to show that the plaintiffs are represented by lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation, Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

FILE - Louisiana Gov. Jeff Landry signs bills related to his education plan, Wednesday, June 19, 2024, at Our Lady of Fatima Catholic School in Lafayette, La. Civil liberties groups filed a lawsuit Monday, June 24, challenging Louisiana’s new law that requires the Ten Commandments to be displayed in every public school classroom. (Brad Bowie/The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate via AP, File)