Bill to Force Texas Public Schools to Display Ten Commandments Fails

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A push to inject religion into public schools across Texas faltered on Tuesday after the State House failed to pass a contentious bill that would have required the Ten Commandments to be displayed prominently in every classroom.

The measure was part of an effort by conservative Republicans in the Legislature to expand the reach of religion into the daily life of public schools. In recent weeks, both chambers passed versions of a bill to allow school districts to hire religious chaplains in place of licensed counselors.

But the Ten Commandments legislation, which passed the State Senate last month, remained pending before the Texas House until Tuesday, the final day to approve bills before the session ends next Monday. Time expired before the legislation could receive a vote.

The bills appeared aimed at testing the openness of the conservative majority on the Supreme Court to re-examining the legal boundaries of religion in public education. The court sided last year with a Washington State football coach, Joseph Kennedy, in a dispute over his prayers with players at the 50-yard line, saying he had a constitutional right to do so.

“The law has undergone a massive shift,” said Matt Krause, a former Texas state representative and a lawyer at First Liberty Institute, a conservative legal nonprofit focused on religious liberty, during a State Senate hearing last month. “It’s not too much to say that the Kennedy case, for religious liberty, was much like the Dobbs case was for the pro-life movement.”

In recent months, religious groups in several states have appeared interested in seeing how far states might now go in directly supporting religious expression in public schools. This month, the South Carolina legislature introduced its own bill to require the display of the Ten Commandments in all classrooms. In Oklahoma, the state education board was asked earlier this year to approve the creation of an explicitly religious charter school; the board ultimately rejected the application.

“Forcing public schools to display the Ten Commandments is part of the Christian Nationalist crusade to compel all of us to live by their beliefs,” said Rachel Laser, the president and chief executive of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a nonprofit advocacy group. She pointed to new laws in Idaho and Kentucky permitting public school employees to pray in front of students, and a bill in Missouri allowing elective classes on the Bible. “It’s not just in Texas,” she said.

The Texas bill on displaying the Ten Commandments resembled another bill, passed in 2021 during the last legislative session, that required public schools to accept and display donated posters bearing the motto “In God We Trust.” Patriot Mobile, a conservative Christian cellphone company outside of Fort Worth, was among the first to make such donations after the bill’s passage.

But the legislation on the Ten Commandments went further. It required schools to display posters of the words and to do so “in a conspicuous place in each classroom” and “in a size and typeface that is legible to a person with average vision from anywhere in the classroom.”

Schools that do not furnish their own posters will have to accept donations of posters, according to the bill. The legislation also specified how the commandments were to be rendered, with the text including prescribed capitalization: “I AM the LORD thy God.”

The words, taken from a Protestant version of the commandments from the King James Version of the Bible, are the same as those that appear on a monument on the grounds of the Texas Capitol. Gov. Greg Abbott, when he was state attorney general, successfully defended the monument’s placement more than a decade ago before the Supreme Court.

The legislation allowing school districts to hire chaplains or to accept them as volunteers was presented as a solution to a problem in Texas and other states: a shortage of school counselors. Opponents of the measure said that chaplains did not fill the need because they did not have the same expertise, training or licensing as counselors.

“The way the bill is crafted, a school board could opt to have no counselors, no family specialists, no school psychologists and replace them entirely with chaplains,” said Diego Bernal, a Democratic representative from San Antonio, during a hearing this month.

“I guess if the schools thought that that was a necessary thing, they could make that decision,” replied the bill’s sponsor in the State House, Cole Hefner, a Republican representative from East Texas.

The measure, known as Senate Bill 763, passed in the Texas Senate and then in the House; now the chambers must agree on a final version before sending it to Mr. Abbott.

The Ten Commandments bill, known as Senate Bill 1515, similarly passed smoothly through the State Senate, where Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a hard-right Republican, holds enormous power. He praised the bill as “one step we can take to make sure that all Texans have the right to freely express their sincerely held religious beliefs.”

But after going to the Texas House, the legislation faced a problem common in the Republican-dominated Legislature, which meets once every two years and whose members this session introduced more than 8,000 pieces of proposed legislation: deadlines in the legislative calendar.

Tuesday was the final day for the House to pass bills. As Republicans rushed to do so, Democrats, who wield little direct power, delayed the proceedings by speaking at length and repeatedly at every opportunity for much of the day, a process known in the Texas Capitol as “chubbing.”

By doing so, they prevented the Ten Commandments bill — and many other contentious measures placed late in the day’s calendar — from coming up for a vote.

“This bill was an unconstitutional attack on our core liberties, and we are happy it failed,” David Donatti, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, said in a statement. “The First Amendment guarantees families and faith communities — not politicians or the government — the right to instill religious beliefs in their children.”

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