Contracts, compacts, and commandments: Louisiana’s litmus test could determine the fate of the First Amendment

June 24, 2024

Governor Jeff Landry’s outflow of traditionally conservative legislation pinnacled on Wednesday after he signed into law HB 71—an act prescribing the display of the Mayflower Compact, the Declaration of Independence, the Northwest Ordinance, and the Ten Commandments in all publicly funded Louisiana classrooms.

According to the Office of the Governor, HB 71 was one of nineteen bills signed into law on Juneteeth as part of the governor’s “Dream Big” educational roadmap. Although described as “common sense bills,” this conglomeration of legislation is a watershed victory for conservative lawmakers. 

Notably, HB 71 received heavy criticism by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a civil liberties group. Governor Landry simply retorted that “I can’t wait to be sued.”

Louisiana’s decision tests the tension between the Free Exercise Clause and the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. As a constitutional question, federal courts will scrutinize if HB 71 serves a historical or religious purpose. 

Section 1 of the law emphasizes that “In 2005, the Supreme Court of the United States recognized that it is permissible to display the Ten Commandments on government property in Van Orden v. Perry.” 

As a plurality opinion, Perry’s rationale is all but clear. Now, federal courts are positioned to unambiguously describe the constitutionality of compulsory laws that entail the display of religious material. 

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