Ten Commandments. Multiple variations. Why the Louisiana law raises preferential treatment concerns

Christians and Jews believe in the Ten Commandments — just not necessarily the version that will hang in every public school and state-funded college classroom in Louisiana.

The required text prescribed in the new law and used on many monuments around the United States is a condensed version of the Scripture passage in Exodus containing the commandments. It has ties to “The Ten Commandments” movie from 1956, and it’s a variation of a version commonly associated with Protestants.

That’s one of the issues related to religious freedom and separation of church and state being raised over this mandate, which was swiftly followed by a lawsuit.

“H.B. 71 is not neutral with respect to religion,” according to the legal complaint filed June 24 by Louisiana clergy, public school parents and civil liberties groups. “It requires a specific, state-approved version of that scripture to be posted, taking sides on theological questions regarding the correct content and meaning of the Decalogue.”

It's also part of a bigger picture. The new law signed by Republican Gov. Jeff Landry on June 19 is not only part of a wave of efforts by GOP-led states to target public schools, it’s also one of the latest conservative Christian victories in the long-standing fight over the role of religion in public life.

Another example came this week in Oklahoma, where the Republican state school superintendent ordered public schools to incorporate the Bible into lessons for grades 5 through 12. In both states, the government leaders argued the historical significance of the religious text was justification enough for use in public schools.

“This cause has persisted because conservative partisans believe it’s a way to mobilize their base,” said Kevin M. Kruse, author of “One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America” and a history professor at Princeton University. He disputes the historical reasoning being used in Louisiana.

“This isn’t about uniting the people of (Landry’s) state; it’s about trying to divide them with a culture war issue that he thinks will win his side votes.”

Is there only one version of the Ten Commandments?

The Ten Commandments come from Jewish and Christian Scripture, which says there are 10 of them but doesn’t number them specifically. Catholics, Jews and Protestants typically order them differently, and the phrasing can change depending on which Bible translation is used or what part of Scripture they are pulled from.

“If you want to respect the rule of law, you’ve got to start from the original lawgiver, which was Moses” who got the commandments from God, said Landry during the signing ceremony at a Catholic school. The governor also is Catholic.

What version is Louisiana using in its public schools?

No Bible translation is named, but the Ten Commandments in the Louisiana law appears to be a variation on the King James Bible version and listed in the order commonly used by Protestants.

Translated in 17th century England from biblical languages, the King James version was for centuries the standard Bible used by evangelicals and other Protestants, even though many today use more modern translations. It is still the go-to translation for some worshippers.

The version in the Louisiana law matches the wording on the Ten Commandments monolith that stands outside of the Texas State Capitol in Austin. It was given to the state in 1961 by the Fraternal Order of Eagles, a more than 125-year-old, Ohio-based service organization with thousands of members. In 2005, a divided U.S. Supreme Court ruled it did not violate the constitution and could stay.

The Eagles did not respond to The Associated Press’s request for comment, but the organization notes on its website that it distributed about 10,000 Ten Commandments plaques in 1954. The organization also partnered with the creators of “The Ten Commandments” to market the film, spreading public displays of the list around the country, according to Kruse, who wrote about the relationship in his book “One Nation Under God.”

“It’s significant that the Louisiana law uses the same text created for 'The Ten Commandments' movie promotions by the Fraternal Order of Eagles and Paramount Pictures because it reminds us that this text isn’t one found in any Bible and isn’t one used by any religious faith,” Kruse said via email. “Instead, it’s a text that was crafted by secular political actors in the 1950s for their own ends.”

What concerns are being raised about this version?

Although white evangelical Protestants and many white Catholics unite behind conservative politics today, the King James Bible has been used historically in strategically anti-Catholic ways, including amid the anti-Catholic sentiment in late 19th and early 20th centuries, said Robert Jones. He is president of the Public Religion Research Institute and author of “The Hidden Roots of White Supremacy.”

The Louisiana law contains plenty of evidence, including the specific Bible translation used, that the real intent is to privilege a particular expression of Christianity, Jones said.

“What it is really symbolizing is an evangelical Christian stamp on the space,” he said. “It is less about the ideas and more about its use as a symbol, a totem, that marks territory for a particular religious tradition.”

This version is an odd choice, Kruse said, but he thinks it speaks more to how political leaders view religion.

“Decades ago, we would have seen this as a triumph of Protestantism in a deeply Catholic state, but I think its adoption today just shows how little the political leaders of the state actually care about the substance of religion,” Kruse said.

For Benjamin Marsh, a North Carolina pastor watching the Louisiana law, his primary concern is people's spiritual formation so altering the Ten Commandments is worrisome to him.

“The problem with changing the text of the Ten Commandments is you rob the spiritual implications of the actual biblical text. So you’re giving some vague likeness to the Ten Commandments that isn’t the real thing,” said Marsh. He leads First Alliance Church Winston-Salem, which is part of a conservative evangelical denomination.

Former President Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee for president, drew cheers when he invoked the new law on June 22 while speaking to a group of politically influential evangelical Christians in Washington.

“Has anyone read the ‘Thou shalt not steal’? I mean, has anybody read this incredible stuff? It’s just incredible,” Trump said during the Faith & Freedom Coalition gathering. “They don’t want it to go up. It’s a crazy world.’’

How exactly will the Ten Commandments read on the classroom displays?

The Ten Commandments I AM the LORD thy God. Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Thou shalt not make to thyself any graven images. Thou shalt not take the Name of the Lord thy God in vain. Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Honor thy father and thy mother, that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee. Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt not commit adultery. Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor. 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 anything that is thy neighbor’s.


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