Support for a GOP push to allow the Ten Commandments in AZ schools falters in the House

Republican state Sen. Anthony Kern stands next to an LED screen truck at a protest of a Glendale elementary school district board’s decision not to renew a student teaching contract with a religious university because of its requirement that its students commit to an anti-LGBTQ statement of faith. Kern, who represents Glendale, gathered and led a group of protestors on March 9, 2023. Photo by Gloria Rebecca Gomez | Arizona Mirror

Some Republican lawmakers in the Arizona legislature want public school teachers to have the option to display and teach the Ten Commandments in their classrooms. 

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Anthony Kern, a far-right Republican from Glendale and a member of the Arizona Freedom Caucus, claimed on Tuesday that the entire U.S. system of government was based on the Ten Commandments, a claim that legal scholars and historians say is not true

Kern’s Senate Bill 1151 would allow public school teachers and administrators to display or teach the Ten Commandments in their classrooms. And it would add the religious doctrine to a list of items that instructors can teach about American history, including the National Anthem, the Pledge of Allegiance, the Mayflower Compact and the Declaration of Independence.

“If you look back in the 1960s, the progressive slide down in our country is because we’ve taken the Ten Commandments away from our schools,” Kern said on the Senate floor on Feb. 22. 

The U.S. Supreme Court found in 1962 that classroom prayers in public schools violated the Establishment Clause of the Constitution, which prohibits the government from creating any law “respecting an establishment of religion.” 

When asked where in the U.S. founding documents the Ten Commandments could be found, Kern said he didn’t know — but that the Puritans first came to America to freely worship Jesus Christ and that our whole system of government, including the state Legislature, is based on the commandments. 

While Kern has repeatedly said when promoting the bill that Texas just passed one like it, that is not true. The bill that he seems to be referring to passed through that state’s Senate, but never got a vote in one of that state’s legislative chambers. Kern said during the committee that he was unaware that the Texas bill never passed, even though it failed around 10 months ago in May 2023. 

Even though he ultimately voted in favor of the bill on Tuesday, Rep. David Cook, R-Globe, told Kern during a House Education Committee hearing that he would be looking to the Legislature’s attorneys for an opinion on it — and that he didn’t know how the bill even made it this far into the legislative process. 

“I think this thing is going to be unconstitutional,” Cook said, adding that he took an oath to uphold both the Arizona and U.S. Constitutions.  

During a Senate Education Committee discussion of the bill on Feb. 14, Senate Minority Leader Mitzi Epstein, D-Tempe, said that she’s taught Catholic religious education classes after school and helped her son prepare for his bar mitzvah, so she knows there are multiple versions of the Ten Commandments. She was one of several people who have asked Kern which version would be allowed in classrooms. 

He said during a House Committee meeting on Tuesday, that teachers could display whichever version they preferred. 

The reason that the U.S. is so tolerant of multiple religions is because it was founded on Christianity, Kern said, which he described as a “tolerant religion.” 

“If I go to the Middle East and promote Christianity, I’m going to get my head chopped off,” he said. 

Sen. Theresa Hatathlie, a Tuba City Democrat and a member of the Navajo Nation, reminded her fellow lawmakers on the Senate floor on Feb. 22 that some Arizonans don’t wish to practice Christianity, and that is their right. 

“Freedom of religion is a concept that was introduced on these lands just a few generations ago,” Hatathlie said. “I pledge my allegiance to my identity, to who I am, to the culture that I was born into.” 

She added that she doesn’t like Judeo-Christian ideas being pushed onto herself or her children. 

“I don’t appreciate individuals coming up to me and trying to recruit me or convert me,” she said. “I’m willing to listen, but I, myself, I have that choice.”

Which religious beliefs are taught to minors should be up to their families, Hatathlie said. 

During the Senate floor discussion, Kern advised his colleagues to check out the Supreme Court’s 2022 decision in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, in which the court ruled that a high school football coach was improperly fired for freely practicing his religion by praying with his players. 

But in that case, the court found that the coach was acting in his personal capacity when leading the prayers, which were optional and occurred after games had ended. The court ruled that the coach’s prayers were not offered “within the scope of his duties as” a school official, a much different situation than a teacher posting or teaching about the Ten Commandments during class at a public school. 

Cook pointed to the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Stone v. Graham, which struck down a Kentucky law that mandated the posting of the Ten Commandments in all public school classrooms. The court found that the law violated the Establishment Clause of the Constitution and that the Ten Commandments “had no secular legislative purpose.”

“This is actually indoctrination,” Epstein said of Kern’s bill. “If you post the Ten Commandments and they are commanding people to love God, certainly that is a beautiful thing. 

“It’s not a beautiful thing if your family does not subscribe to that religion. In fact, it could be very harmful to a family who does not subscribe to that religion.”

Kern said during the Tuesday committee hearing that teachers could choose to inform parents that they will be teaching about the Ten Commandments to give them a chance to opt out. There is no language in his bill that actually allows for a parent to opt out. 

Gaelle Esposito, a lobbyist for the ACLU of Arizona, told lawmakers on Tuesday that when the government sets up a display in a school that advocates a particular religion, they are making every student who doesn’t follow that religion a “second-class citizen.” 

“Public schools should not promote morality as coming from one religion,” Esposito said. 

Rep. Nancy Gutierrez, D-Tucson, countered Kern’s arguments, saying that the U.S. is not a Christian nation, but one full of people who practice a multitude of religions. 

“This is not only an inappropriate thing to have in our classrooms, it’s offensive,” she said. 

Kern’s bill passed through the Senate Feb. 22 by a vote of 16-12, along party lines. It passed through the House Education Committee on Tuesday 6-4, with only Republicans voting in favor.

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