Florida officials are dangerously — and unconstitutionally — promoting Christian nationalism in public schools.
The Legislature has passed a bill that will require a 1-to 2-minute moment of silence every morning at every public school in Florida, openly intended to encourage students to recite prayers in class. The requirement is being added to a provision of the law relating to “study of the Bible and religion” in public schools. Although this year’s change eliminates the “prayer” language (which is good), it makes the activity mandatory, and the religious intent is still undeniable.
A second attack on secular schools, based on a 2019 law to revisit public school civics standards, is the Florida Department of Education’s proposal for new American history curriculum standards that indoctrinate children into a counterfactual version of history. It’s designed to paint a false narrative that the United States is a Christian nation — and that, by implication, one must be Christian in order to be a “true” American.
This (almost finalized) proposal would require seventh graders to “recognize the influence of the Ten Commandments on establishing the rule of law in America” — which, actually, is none at all. Besides failing to specify which version of the Ten Commandments (there are four), the proposal makes the all-too-common mistake of presupposing that the “big ten” must be the foundation of modern law.
The first four commandments are solely about how to worship the biblical deity and what terrible things will happen to you if you do not. They would violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, guaranteeing freedom of religion, if enacted into law. Another batch of commandments — honoring parents and not coveting — are nowhere to be found in American criminal law. The only three commandments that do align with American laws — prohibitions on murder, theft and perjury — are not original to the Old Testament.
Both the U.S. and the Florida Constitutions prohibit laws “respecting an establishment of religion,” meaning the government must not take sides on religious debates. Public schools cannot present the government as a Christian or “Judeo-Christian” entity.
Besides, the Ten Commandments’ influence on the rule of law in America is simply a myth. And yet, the Florida Department of Education has proposed an unconstitutional requirement that this disinformation be taught to every seventh grader in Florida, along with other debunked Christian nationalist talking points such as “How Judeo-Christian values influenced America’s founding ideals and documents” and “The influence of the Protestant work ethic on economic freedom and personal responsibility.” The proposed standards would require that schools remind ninth-grade students of all these falsehoods.
Such measures are un-American and antithetical to true religious freedom and need to be condemned.
Ryan D. Jayne is an attorney for the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Madison, Wisconsin-headquartered national nonprofit with over 35,000 members and several chapters across the country, including almost 1,800 members and a chapter in Florida.