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Guest opinion: Ten Commandments shouldn’t be in Utah public school curriculum

By Annie Laurie Gaylor - | Apr 5, 2024

The Utah Legislature has passed an unconscionable law encouraging that the Ten Commandments be studied in public schools.

The measure says that the commandments should be added “to a list of historical documents and principles that school curricula and activities may include for a thorough study” to better understand what has shaped the United States. The Ten Commandments don’t belong in our classrooms, however, much less to be put on the same footing as historic documents such as the Mayflower Compact, formative documents such as the Declaration of Independence or our governing document, the U.S. Constitution.

The law, which passed through the Legislature as H.B. 269, is a watered-down version of a bill that would have required public schools to prominently display the biblical edicts. That bill was in defiance of the Supreme Court’s 1980 Stone v. Graham decision, which ruled that “the preeminent purpose for posting the Ten Commandments on schoolroom walls is plainly religious.” The amended law dishonestly justifies posting the Ten Commandments in classrooms but also inappropriately introduces biblical edicts into what should be academic instruction in American history and government. The law injects a false narrative into the founding of the United States, as is made clear from sponsor state Rep. Michael Peterson’s argument that the Ten Commandments has an “undeniable” place in U.S. history.

Au contraire. The commandments had no place in the founding of the United States. The Declaration of Independence introduced the revolutionary notion of basing government on “the consent of the governed,” a concept you won’t find in the bible. The Massachusetts Bay Colony often is wrongly conflated with the founding of the United States, but the former established a Puritan theocracy in a 1630s British colony, while our nation was created nearly 150 years later. We are governed under the godless and entirely secular U.S. Constitution, whose only references to religion are exclusionary, such as that there shall be no religious test for public office.

As for the Ten Commandments themselves, only three have any conceivable relevance to U.S. law. The first four are entirely religious: ordering which god to worship, barring graven images and taking the Lord’s name in vain, and remembering the Sabbath. All four violate our First Amendment. The state of Utah and its public schools have no business telling students which god to have, how many gods to have — or whether to have any gods at all!

The Fifth Commandment, honoring parents, can’t be legislated. Every human society of whatever religious persuasion has adopted laws against killing (the Sixth Commandment) and theft (the Eighth), but in most societies they are wisely not couched in absolutes, but allow for degree and intent.

Then there’s that Seventh Commandment: adultery. Let’s see Rep. Peterson sit down and explain to students how that one is pivotal to U.S. governance. As for the Ninth against “bearing false witness,” the United States already has secular regulations against perjury and false advertising, thank you.

The Tenth Commandment must be condemned as both inane and sexist: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his cattle, nor his ass, nor anything that is thy neighbor’s.” This commandment, insultingly, is directed at men and treats women as property. “Manservant” and “maidservant” are Bible-speak for “slave.” And why on earth would the U.S. government care if you “covet” your neighbor’s house? If we outlawed coveting, our entire free enterprise system would collapse!

Worst yet, the law has the Utah Legislature deciding which versions of the Ten Commandments are correct, explicitly referencing Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5, while omitting Exodus 34:28, which is actually titled “the Ten Commandments.” The Legislature prefers to ignore this version’s embarrassingly different admonitions, including the Tenth, which reads: “Thou shalt not seethe a kid in its mother’s milk.” Utah legislators telling other people’s children by law which are the true “Ten Commandments” is precisely the kind of government action the framers of our secular Constitution sought to prohibit.

To ignorantly claim that the Ten Commandments had anything to do with U.S. government, which is explicitly separate from religion, is propaganda twisting our nation’s secular heritage and misinforming schoolchildren. The Freedom From Religion Foundation, heeding our own favorite advice — “Thou shalt honor thy First Amendment” — will monitor the fallout from this law and take action as necessary to protect student freedom of conscience.

Annie Laurie Gaylor is the co-founder and co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national nonprofit with 40,000 members all across the country, including hundreds of members in Utah.


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