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Conservative Christian organization supports Louisiana's Ten Commandments law

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Louisiana has passed a law requiring public schools to display a poster with the Ten Commandments. Governor Jeff Landry, a Republican, signed the bill into law on Wednesday. It requires classrooms in the state's more than 1,300 public schools to comply by January 1. The ACLU has already said it will challenge the law, but we have with us someone who defends it. That's Matt Krause, legal counsel with First Liberty Institute. It's a conservative, nonprofit legal organization that has successfully brought a number of lawsuits on behalf of people who believe their religious rights have been violated. He's also a former Republican state representative in Texas, and he's a current candidate for Tarrant County commissioner. Good morning.

MATT KRAUSE: Good morning.

MARTIN: So Mr. Krause, you were telling us you tried to get a similar law passed in Texas. Why do you think this new law is necessary, or at least important?

KRAUSE: Yeah. I think it's always important for us as Americans, you know, to be tethered to the history and traditions of America, and there's really nothing more historical or traditional than the Ten Commandments. We've seen from the earliest times in our country - whether it be in law, whether it be in education, whether it be just cultural society - the Ten Commandments played an important role in the founding, and so I think it's a good reminder for the students, to just give them something to be tethered to in the past to say, this is some of the principles that we were built upon. And it's good to remind students also, you know, don't kill, don't steal, honor your mother and father, so I think there's several benefits to having them up.

MARTIN: Well, so the ACLU says it's, as I said, going to challenge what it calls a blatantly unconstitutional law. The argument is that Louisiana, like the United States, is religiously diverse, and this privileges specific religious beliefs. How do you answer that?

KRAUSE: Yeah. If you look back to when the Ten Commandments were taken out of public classroom walls, it was the case of Stone v. Graham in 1980, and the sole basis that the court had for striking that law down, that Kentucky law, was that it violated the Lemon test. The Lemon test was a 1970s test. It was a three-pronged, kind of convoluted balancing test that they would use to either say something was constitutional or unconstitutional. Well, in 2022, in a First Liberty Institute case, in Kennedy v. Bremerton, the Supreme Court not only allowed Coach Kennedy to go pray at the 50-yard line, but they also completely threw out the Lemon test. So the sole basis for the Ten Commandments being taken out of classrooms has now been discarded by the Supreme Court, and so we think it's very reasonable to say that, OK, well, now that that bad test has been thrown out, those cases decided solely based on that test are incorrect, as well. And so we think it's just a restoration of what always should have been allowed to continue to happen, and I think that's a good thing for all of us.

MARTIN: So the calculation here is that this court, with its conservative supermajority, is going to let this law stand.

KRAUSE: Yeah, I think the calculation is the new test that they put in place of Lemon - again, they threw that out in 2022 and replaced it with a history and tradition test, which means you go back to the...

MARTIN: OK.

KRAUSE: ...History and look at the tradition of America, and if a document or a monument or a practice...

MARTIN: OK.

KRAUSE: ...Was seen there at the founding, then it should be upheld as constitutional.

MARTIN: OK, but what happens...

KRAUSE: You're not going to find anything more historical or traditional than the Ten Commandments. That's why we feel confident that the law would pass constitutional scrutiny.

MARTIN: I understand, but let me ask you this - what happens when a group like the Satanic Temple says they want a monument or sign of their choosing displayed in classrooms, too? That has happened in other states. What do you do then?

KRAUSE: Sure, and that's a great question. You go back to that history and tradition test. You're not going to find anything that is comparable to the Ten Commandments for the Satanists or in any kind of realm like that that would validate what they want to put up. So I can't think of anything that they would want to put up, that they would want to display, that's going to pass this history and tradition test, 'cause we did not have that at the founding of the country. We did not have that in the hundreds of years since then until more recently.

MARTIN: OK.

KRAUSE: So I think those efforts would fail the history and tradition test, where the Ten Commandments is kind of singularly unique, in that it has been ubiquitous in American society from that very beginning.

MARTIN: You know what else has been ubiquitous - forgive me - is the Constitution itself, which includes everybody. I mean, specific religious beliefs are held by specific people. Obviously, clearly millions of people around the world adhere to the Abrahamic religions, which the Ten Commandments has respected and represents, but the Constitution includes everybody, so why not just have the Constitution displayed in every public classroom, as opposed to a religious document?

KRAUSE: Well, you could certainly display the Constitution. You could display the Mayflower Compact. You could display the Northwest Ordinance. There's lots of documents that you could display that meet that historical and tradition test. The Ten Commandments just happens to be one of those. We've seen it at the founding of the country. Remember, the Ten Commandments got thrown out in 1980. And so we were a country since 1776, had the Constitution in effect since 1789, so for that long a period, the Ten Commandments on public school walls were not seen as a violation of the Constitution. So this isn't anything new or anything radical. This is actually just getting us back to the standard that was in place for centuries in our country before that 1980 decision.

MARTIN: I understand that, but there are also people who adhere to other religious traditions that do not include the Ten Commandments. Is it not a concern that the children who are also paying - whose parents are also paying taxes feel equally included when they're in public school classrooms? Is that not a concern at all?

KRAUSE: I don't think that that's as much of a concern. Again, up until 1980, I don't think there were a lot of students or parents clamoring that they were being forced to proselytize, or being proselytized, by the mere fact of having the Ten Commandments on the walls, but I would say that there is an opportunity for kids, especially in today's culture, to look at those principles - don't kill, don't steal, honor your father and mother, don't be greedy, don't envy - and that's actually a good reminder for our students, so I don't think that there's a coercive effect. I don't think that there's a proselytizing effect.

MARTIN: OK, but what if they think there is?

KRAUSE: I think it's just a good reminder of the principles and values - especially the legal, educational and cultural principles - that our country was built upon. That's always a good thing to remind students.

MARTIN: OK, and what if students today do feel that they're being coerced by this? What do you say to them? What if you say to parents who come from, say, different countries like India, for example, or whatever - pick a country where that is not part of their religious tradition, and they say they do feel it's coercive. What would your response to them be, as a person who also has been an elected official, as well as legal counsel? What would you say?

KRAUSE: I would tell them, hey, we are so glad that you're here in our country. We want you to know where our country came from, and you cannot - it's inescapable that the Ten Commandments were a very important part of the founding of the country. You go to the U.S. Supreme Court building, and you see Moses, you see the Ten Commandments on the walls, and so again, I think it's a great historical lesson or opportunity to tell these...

MARTIN: OK. We appreciate that. All right. That's Matt Krause. He's legal counsel with First Liberty Institute. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.