Utah lawmaker proposes bill requiring public schools to display the Ten Commandments

Jan 18, 2024, 10:49 AM

Rep. Michael Petersen, R-North Logan, stands during the Pledge of Allegiance on Feb. 8, 2022. Peter...

Rep. Michael Petersen, R-North Logan, stands during the Pledge of Allegiance on Feb. 8, 2022. Petersen is pushing a bill to require all Utah public schools to display "a poster or framed copy" of the Ten Commandments. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

(Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — A Utah lawmaker is pushing a bill that would require all public schools in the Beehive State to display “a poster or framed copy” of the Ten Commandments.

HB269, titled “Ten Commandments in Public Schools,” is sponsored by Rep. Michael Petersen, R-North Logan, and would require a poster or framed copy of the religious text to be at least 16 inches wide and 20 inches tall, according to the bill’s language.

Additionally, the bill stipulates any public school not displaying the Ten Commandments would be required to accept and display “any offer” of a privately donated poster or framed copy” that meets the size and display requirements.

A strikingly similar bill to require the Ten Commandments to be posted in Texas classrooms made its way through the Texas Senate on party-line votes last year, until it ultimately failed in the Texas House.

Like Utah’s HB269, Texas’ Senate Bill 1515 would have required classrooms to display copies of the Ten Commandments at least 16 inches wide and 20 inches tall.

According to the Texas Tribune, Democrats in both chambers “fiercely” denounced the bill, saying it “would be an insult to non-Christian Texans and an attempt to erode the separation of church and state.”

Petersen did not respond to requests for comment from KSL.com.

Clifford Rosky, a professor of law and constitutional law at the University of Utah, said he sees HB269 as a “blatant” violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, which says that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”

The clause applies to individual states, along with the federal government.

“If you can’t pray in public schools — if the school can’t require prayer or teach children prayer, why would it be able to teach children the Ten Commandments?” Rosky said. “This is an attempt to teach the Ten Commandments. Why else would it need to be displayed in public schools if not to teach? You can’t teach children one religion and not the others.”

Even though the Ten Commandments are shared by Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths, Rosky said that isn’t a viable defense for displaying them, as there are other faiths, not to mention secular individuals.

“The goal of the law (HB269) is to teach religious doctrine. That’s just very clearly prohibited by the Establishment Clause. That’s the government establishing a religion and teaching it to children,” Rosky said.

Utah is no stranger to the issue of the Ten Commandments being displayed on public property, either.

In the landmark 2009 case Pleasant Grove City v. Summum, a unanimous court ruled a Ten Commandments monument in Pleasant Grove’s Pioneer Park was government speech instead of private speech. The decision made it so the government could selectively choose which messages are memorialized with monuments in public parks.

Summum, which is a small religious sect based in Salt Lake City, brought a lawsuit against the city of Pleasant Grove for displaying the monument and for declining a request to display a monument of Summum’s “Seven Aphorisms.”

Rosky said he doesn’t think HB269 will pass, but if it does, he anticipates it being challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union or a student who objects in a federal lawsuit.

“First, you’d have a district court judge decide that it’s unconstitutional and I’m confident that would happen. Then, you’d appeal to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals (and) they would agree that it’s unconstitutional and then, most likely, the United States Supreme Court would not even take the case because it’s not a complex case,” Rosky said.

But he doesn’t think it would even come down to that.

“I also don’t believe that our Utah Legislature would so blatantly violate the First Amendment of the United States Constitution or that the governor would sign such a law,” Rosky said, saying he feels HB269 is part of a broader campaign by some lawmakers to target and change what schools teach, pointing specifically to race and LGBTQ issues.

“This has been going on since the ’60s on evolution, you know, fights against the teaching of evolution in public schools by the religious right. I think it’s just a continuation of these kinds of battles,” he said.

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Utah lawmaker proposes bill requiring public schools to display the Ten Commandments