Mar 1, 2024 - News

Utah could join the multistate push for more religion in public schools

Illustration of a fragmented book cover showing different religious symbols.

Illustration: Lindsey Bailey/Axios

Proposals to bring more religion into public schools are gaining steam in Utah, where lawmakers passed legislation Thursday to add the Ten Commandments to the list of documents taught in U.S. history.

Why it matters: The measures echo Republican efforts in other states to test the boundary between church and state under a firmly conservative U.S. Supreme Court.

What they're saying: The court has provided "an opportunity" to redraw lines around religion in schools, Rep. Kevin Stratton (R-Orem), said last week when the House passed his HB 514, which would allow school districts to enlist chaplains.

  • Educators are in the "mindset" that religion is off-limits because "since 1971, we've been under what I might call the ghost of Lemon," said Rep. Michael Petersen (R-North Logan), sponsor HB 269, which brings the Ten Commandments into American history curricula.

Catch up quick: Lemon v. Kurtzman was the SCOTUS ruling that required public schools and other public entities to show that actions addressing religion serve some secular purpose or effect. Otherwise, the court held, it violates the First Amendment's Establishment Clause.

  • SCOTUS effectively overturned that in 2022, when the court ruled that church-state questions must be answered with "reference to historical practices and understandings" and "faithfully reflect the understanding of the Founding Fathers."

The big picture: Last year, Texas allowed schools to pay unlicensed chaplains to provide mental health support for students.

State of play: The bill allowing school chaplains was circled late Thursday for a possible vote on Friday, the final day of the legislative session.

  • The Ten Commandments bill goes to Gov. Spencer Cox's desk after Senate Republicans passed it with a 20-4 party-line vote.

The intrigue: Utah lawmakers this week abandoned proposed restrictions on how teachers can discuss their political and religious beliefs in classrooms — in part because they feared it would restrict their religious expression.

  • "I do wonder if [chaplains in schools] would conflict" with HB 303, as well as existing laws on political and religious neutrality in school, Rep. Kera Birkeland (R-Morgan) said in a committee hearing on the measure last week.

What's next: If Utah allows chaplains in schools, the Massachusetts-based Satanic Temple promises to get involved.

  • "Should this bill be enacted, it would create an unprecedented opportunity for our ministers of Satan to have a permanent presence in Utah's public schools," Rachel Chambliss, the group's director of operations, said in a hearing last week.

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