How will Louisiana's Ten Commandments classroom requirement be funded and enforced?

BATON ROUGE, La. – A legal challenge is already underway over a new Louisiana law that mandates displays of the Ten Commandments in classrooms, but the details of how the order would be implemented and enforced remain unclear.

Across the country, there are conservative efforts to incorporate religion into classrooms, including a Florida law allowing school districts to hire volunteer chaplains to counsel students and a move by Oklahoma’s top education official to order public schools to incorporate the Bible into lessons.

The mechanics of the new law in Louisiana are still unclear.

Unless the court blocks the law, schools have more than five months until they must install poster-sized displays of the Ten Commandments in all public schools K-12 and state-funded university classrooms. But it is unclear whether the new law has any power to enforce this requirement and punish those who do not comply.

Supporters of the law say donations would cover the cost of thousands of posters, while critics argue the law is an unfunded mandate that could burden schools. And teachers at some schools have said they won't put up the posters, including in the blue city of New Orleans, where residents and officials have a history of opposing conservative policies.

funding to meet needs

Louisiana has more than 1,300 public schools. Louisiana State University has nearly 1,000 classrooms on its main Baton Rouge campus alone and seven other campuses across the state. That means thousands of posters will be needed to enforce the new law.

The new law requires the Louisiana Department of Education to identify and post on its website resources that posters can provide free of charge.

Lawmakers who supported the bill said during debate in May that the posters or the money to print them would likely be donated to schools in this deep Bible Belt state. Nationwide praise of the law by conservative groups and recent celebrities, including former President Donald Trump, could result in outside financial support for the mandate.

The Louisiana Family Forum, a Christian conservative organization, has already created a page on its website for donations, which will be used “specifically for the purpose of creating and distributing '10 Commandments' exhibits at educational institutions around Louisiana.”

But the question of what happens if a school doesn’t receive enough donations has remained unclear for months.

“So schools have the ability to raise the money or have them (the posters) donated. But, what if you can't raise the money or find a donor?” state Sen. Royce Duplessis, a Democrat who voted against the law, asked during debate on the legislation last month.

“I don’t know what happens after that,” replied state Sen. Adam Bass, a Republican who co-authored the legislation.

The Associated Press contacted several of the bill’s co-authors, including Bass and Attorney General Liz Murrill, Louisiana State Education Superintendent Cade Brumley and the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education’s office, but did not receive answers to questions about the funding.

Lawmakers who supported the bill insisted during debate that the law clearly stated that donations would be used to acquire the posters. Others suggest that the language of the law could still allow for the purchase of the exhibits through public funds.

“Louisiana law does not prohibit the use of public funds for the display of the Ten Commandments. Such use of taxpayer money would only exacerbate this serious constitutional violation,” said Rachel Ledger, president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which opposes the law.

The law states that it will not force a public school governing authority to spend its own money to purchase exhibits. Instead, “to fund the exhibitions free of charge, the school public governing authority” shall either accept donated funds to purchase exhibits or accept donated exhibits.

Opponents say that despite substantial donations, the state is still spending money and resources to defend a lawsuit they consider unconstitutional.

But supporters say it's a battle they're willing to fight.

enforcement of new laws

Teacher of the Year for 2020, Chris Dear, from Louisiana, said he does not intend to post the Ten Commandments in his classroom.

“I don't believe in doing something that is unconstitutional and harmful to students,” said Dier, who teaches at a New Orleans high school.

It is unclear whether failure to comply would result in punishment, as the language of the law does not list any consequences. While the law specifies that Louisiana’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education will adopt “rules and regulations” to ensure the “proper implementation” of the mandate, enforcement could fall on parish school boards or local school districts.

A similar law passed last year requires classrooms to have “In God We Trust” written on them. Enforcement and penalties for noncompliance with that law are determined by local education agencies, said Kevin Calbert, a spokesman for the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

The AP sent emails to 55 parish school board members across the state, including rural and urban parishes in Republican-dominated and Democratic-leaning areas, asking if they support the law and how they plan to implement it. Two responded, saying they support the mandate.

Orleans Parish School Board Vice President Carlos Luis Zervigon took a different view, calling it “clearly unconstitutional.”

“I haven't heard any discussion or deliberation on this,” the former history teacher said. “My instinct is that I won't do anything unless I'm forced to do so.”

With schools closed for the summer and many school board meetings being limited, Zarvigan said his board has not yet talked about the requirement. However, if they are tasked with figuring out the implementation and enforcement of the requirement, they may take a “wait and see” attitude until the court decides.

“I can see myself drafting a resolution that says something like, 'We're not going to implement this until we get legal clarity about whether or not this is constitutional,'” he said.

However, if New Orleans oversteps, Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry “could retaliate,” Zarvigan said.

Landry, a Republican, has attempted to punish New Orleans in the past when city officials resisted enforcing Louisiana’s near-total abortion ban.

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