Portrait of schoolgirl (6-7) standing before class demonstrating drawing and female teacher sitting nearby
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Separation of church and state is a concept embedded within the U.S. Constitution. The goal was to prevent the government from promoting one religion or one sect over all others.

The idea seems simple, but over the years, it has become not only a political issue but a moral, legal and practical one.

The Texas Senate passed a bill requiring public schools’ classrooms to display a copy of the Ten Commandments, a decision to which critics say lawmakers should not dictate what religious material students are exposed to. Senate Bill 1515 requires the commandments to be displayed in a “conspicuous place: in a “size and typeface that is legible to a person with average vision from anywhere in the classroom.”

The author of the bill, Sen. Phil King (R-Weatherford), said the bill would help restore religious liberties “that were lost” as well as “reminds students all across Texas of the importance of a fundamental foundation” of America. The Senate gave final passage to Senate Bill 1396, which would allow public and charter schools to adopt a policy requiring every campus to set aside time for students and employees to pray and read the Bible or other religious texts.

The Republican Party has been very overt with its gestures toward supporting Christian nationalism, which can also be seen in its anti-LGBTQ and abortion laws.

While the bill has passed in the Senate, it will still need to be approved by the state’s House of Representatives, then signed by Gov. Greg Abbott. The bill, if passed, will take effect in the next school year.

It’s too soon to tell how far this legislation will go. However, the Defender spoke to Dr. Eddy Carder, assistant professor of Constitutional Law and Philosophy at Prairie View A&M University, to share his insights on how this could affect students, teachers and schools across the city.

Defender: How does this move play into Republic identity politics?

Dr. Carder: We are in a culture war. The Right versus the Left. This is just one more effort on the part of the Republican leadership in our state to further entrench us toward Christian convictions, values and worldview. Also, it’s an attempt to control the ideological context in which education is taking place in our state. It’s virtually playing itself out most visibly during the 88th legislative session.

Defender: Is this an apparent dismantling of the separation of church and state?

Carder: This violates the barrier and the boundary between church and state. The senator who made this proposal and introduced this bill said the objective was to take us back to a when we were more firmly rooted in the values that were a part of our history and tradition. The bottom line is that this moral code, the Ten Commandments is not a secular moral code; it’s a religious, moral code. It’s evidenced by the very first words of the Ten Commandments, ‘I am the Lord your God.” This is a religious code that can very well be argued is a violation of the establishment clause and the boundary that is to exist between church and state.

In addition, this fails to acknowledge that we are in a different culture today. We are in a much more diverse society—a more pluralistic culture. Not everyone endorses the Christian world of view. Not everyone supports the religious world of view. It fails to consider the modern-day context in which we live. Not only have I gone to law school, but I’ve been a minister for 45 years. This is a violation of theology. It’s an effort to mandate Christian values without a good theology of Christian conversion or experience.

Defender: How do state lawmakers find ways to insert religion into schools, despite the First Amendment saying it forbids making a law “respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”?

Carder: We live in a time when the ends justify the means. If the end could produce the desired outcome, the means almost becomes beside the point, even if it violates certain foundational constitutional doctrines or principles. Anytime we adopt this philosophy, all bets are off. We can circumvent the Constitution and the law carried out in that context.

Defender: Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick called the bill “one step we can take to ensure that all Texans have the right to freely express their sincerely held religious beliefs.” What do you think of this statement?

Carder: Lieutenant Governor Patrick would argue it’s inclusive, but really, it’s exclusive. It focuses exclusively on one religion and the Christian standard for morality and values. So, while we might parade it as advocating for religious liberty, in actuality, it’s quite to the contrary, a violation of religious liberty and freedom from religion. This is a violation for those parents and children who do not have a religious worldview or perspective.

Defender: How will this impact children in schools?

Carder: This is a vulnerable and impressionable population. They are in the educational context learning how to function and develop the basics of life. And the introduction of these kinds of Christian standards and the Ten Commandments into the classroom is obviously an endorsement of the Christian faith and imposition of faith upon those vulnerable students. I read that one of the representatives said we have the commandments near the Capitol building. There’s a qualitative difference between the individuals occupying the Capitol and young children who are very vulnerable and impressionable.

Defender: How should freedom of religion look like in schools?

Carder: I’m convinced that freedom of religion and decision is an issue to be addressed by the parents and in the context of the home and family. It is not the prerogative or privilege of the state to endorse a particular religion. That violates the parent’s responsibilities regarding their relationship with their children in the home. It’s an overstepping of the boundaries.

Laura Onyeneho is the Defender Network Education Reporter and a Report For America Corps member. Email her at laura@defendernetwork.com.

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Laura OnyenehoEducation Reporter

I cover Houston's education system as it relates to the Black community for the Defender as a Report for America corps member. I'm a multimedia journalist and have reported on social, cultural, lifestyle,...