A Texas Democrat dismantled the case for putting the Ten Commandments in schools
Rep. James Talarico calmly, but ruthlessly, explained how the bill was "un-American" and "un-Christian"
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If you’re in a political minority with no chance of stopping bad legislation, the least you can do is raise hell when speaking out against your opponents’ bad ideas. That’s precisely what Texas State Rep. James Talarico did on Tuesday during a hearing on SB 1515, a bill that would require all public schools to place the Ten Commandments—King James’ Version only—on the walls of every classroom.
As I’ve posted before, Texas Republicans have made it clear they want to impose Christianity on all students in any possible way. This bill is about as explicit as it gets.
On April 20, the State Senate voted 17-12 in favor of the bill, and it’s currently being debated in the State House. The bill says the Ten Commandments posters, which could be privately donated or bought “using public funds,” would all have to read as follows:
The Ten Commandments
I AM the LORD thy God.
Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
Thou shalt not make to thyself any graven images.
Thou shalt not take the Name of the Lord thy God in vain.
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.
Honor thy father and thy mother, that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.
Thou shalt not kill.
Thou shalt not commit adultery.
Thou shalt not steal.
Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.
Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor ’s house.
Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor ’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his cattle, nor anything that is thy neighbor’s.
The obvious problems with the list have been discussed ad nauseam, but just to rehash some common arguments, the same people who don’t want high schoolers learning about sex, systemic racism, or LGBTQ people seem to have very specific things they want kindergartners to know about about adultery and their neighbor’s maidservants.
The list also wouldn’t solve any real problems; no potential school shooter has ever plotted out a path of destruction only to reconsider after realizing the Ten Commandments say “Thou shalt NOT kill.” If students need a sign to remind them not to murder others, they have bigger issues. It would be great if they could see a mental health professional, but the same Texas lawmakers are currently trying to replace those experts with Christian chaplains.
And, of course, several of the Commandments are flat-out useless since they include mandates against believing in false gods, not making “graven images,” taking God’s name in vain, and keeping the Sabbath day holy.
So what do you do if you’re a Democrat trying to point this out in committee?
Simple: Ask the obvious questions and watch one of the bill’s chief defenders squirm.
That’s what Talarico did during a House Public Education Committee meeting yesterday, asking Rep. Candy Noble (who authored the House version of the same bill) to defend it. Talarico, a former middle school teacher himself, posted the highlights of their exchange in a series of tweets, and they really need to be seen in full because of how eye-opening the entire conversation was.
(And also because Twitter no longer allows anyone to embed tweets in Substack.)
Here’s the relevant portion of the hearing along with the transcript:
TALARICO: … I have lots of questions about this bill. One, I want to first acknowledge that the Ten Commandments are important to me—personally important to my faith. I'm sure they're important to many people here on the dais. And, in fact, I think the Ten commandments are hard to obey, and they're meant to be hard to obey. And I don't always think that the legislature obeys the Ten Commandments. So I just want to walk through a couple.
“Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.”
Are you aware the legislature is scheduled to meet this Saturday?
NOBLE: I am aware of that.
TALARICO: So that would be violating the Ten Commandments.
NOBLE: I contend that that is a hard… you're right.
TALARICO: “Thou shalt not kill.” Are you aware the legislature has refused to outlaw the death penalty?
NOBLE: Again… we're using the words that are on the monument [outside the Texas Capitol] because it has been upheld by the Supreme Court. But we're talking about murder here and not justice and certainly not war.
Quick note: The Ten Commandments monument outside the Texas Capitol was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2005, on a 5-4 vote, only because it was not in isolation. The Court said it was part of a larger display (including 17 monuments and 21 historical markers) showcasing “history” and moral ideals. Whether or not you agree with their assessment, the point is that the Christian monument wasn’t the only game in town. The same day that decision came down, the Court ruled in a different 5-4 split that a stand-alone Ten Commandments display was illegal in Kentucky precisely because it was not placed in any context and was therefore a violation of the Establishment Clause.
These posters in Texas would not be placed in any secular context. For Noble to argue that the Supreme Court has already deemed these posters legal is a complete misreading of what they said nearly two decades ago.
Talarico then made the argument that few people take these Commandments seriously, including Republican members of the state legislature:
TALARICO: The translation that I'm looking at in your bill is “Thou shalt not kill.”
NOBLE: Absolutely. The reason we are using that language, again, is because that is the language that has been upheld by the Supreme Court.
TALARICO: “Thou shalt not commit adultery.”
NOBLE: Be true to the one you love!
TALARICO: And the Second Commandment, which I think is the most important, “Thou shalt not make to thyself any graven image,” meant to prevent idolatry, the creation of idols. The idea that some people would try to make an object, maybe two tablets to worship, rather than worshipping the God behind those two tablets. Are you worried that this bill is idolatrous?
NOBLE: I do not.
TALARICO: Why not?
NOBLE: This bill is reflective of the principles that we need in our classrooms. And as a former school teacher—I know you are, too—what do we need more than the reasons why we are doing the things that we're doing? Why do we not celebrate the need to respect others, to respect authority? I contend that this is absolutely needed, and I get where you're going with that particular Commandment, but it's there, and it is historical, and it is foundational.
TALARICO: Would you be open to an amendment to the bill saying that if a member of the legislature violates these commandments, that we can no longer mandate public school teachers put it in classrooms?
NOBLE: It is my intention to keep this bill clean as it came over from the Senate.
Already, Talarico has noted four Commandments that are regularly broken by Republican members of government. None of that mattered to Noble, and she didn’t even bother justifying the hypocrisy. How could she? There is no way to make it make sense. But Christian Nationalists have a habit of saying one thing and doing another; the rules never apply to them.
Noble doesn’t care if Republicans break the Commandments. She just wants to shove her supposed morality in the faces of children while remaining silent every time her own colleagues turn their backs on them.
Talarico wasn’t done noting the hypocrisy.
TALARICO: I want to talk about religious inclusion. The Supreme Court case that you [cited, Bremerton v.] Kennedy, was about a football coach who prayed on the football field. And the Supreme Court said that the Establishment Clause—the First Amendment in our Constitution, which prohibits the state, a government, like all of us, from establishing a state religion—doesn't apply to that because it's his personal faith, a personal expression of his faith.
Your bill doesn't do that, though. It mandates that every single teacher put the Ten Commandments in their classroom. Is there a difference between…
NOBLE: Yes, there's—
TALARICO: … prohibiting an individual school employee or teacher from practicing or expressing their faith versus the state now mandating that one particular faith be expressed in a classroom?
NOBLE: So are you referring to the faith of Judaism? Because that's where this comes from.
TALARICO: Sure. Yes.
NOBLE: Is that what you're referring to? I contend that the historic and foundational reference of the Ten Commandments in our nation's history is what we're looking at here, and not the bunny path that I think you've taken us on. I am not an attorney, and I do not play one on TV, but I do have an attorney here that can speak to that better than I can. And so I would like to defer to let them answer that, if that's okay with you.
TALARICO: That's fine. And I can ask the attorney these questions too. But as the bill author, I want to drill down. Would you be open to an amendment that would allow schools to post the five precepts of Taoism?
NOBLE: Again, that is not foundational to our American judicial and educational system. That does not fit into that criteria which the Supreme Court has set forth.
TALARICO: There are many, many documents that have influenced the American Constitution, including the Code of Hammurabi, the Magna Carta. Would you be open to a teacher posting one of those instead of the Ten Commandments?
NOBLE: I am… Today? That is not my bill.
TALARICO: And so the major world religions, in addition to Judaism and Christianity—Buddhism, Hinduism—which are represented at our schools, you're not willing to allow one of those Commandments or one of those religious doctrines to be posted in the classroom?
NOBLE: Again, we are talking about something that has historically been in our education system. In our earliest textbooks in America were these Ten Commandments. And, actually, lots of Bible references were our earliest American textbooks. That's what we're talking about here.
I'm not familiar with what you're talking… I am familiar with the Magna Carta, but the others, I'm not familiar with, and so I can't speak to those.
TALARICO: But do you see why if our First Amendment is forbidding the state from establishing a state religion, that mandating that one tradition be elevated above the rest would be a violation of that First Amendment?
NOBLE: I disagree with that because, again, our judicial system and our educational system, this is foundational to them…
TALARICO: I've listed other things that are foundational as well…
NOBLE: If we don't know where we've been, how do we know where we're going? I love history, and this is very foundational to the history of our nation.
TALARICO: But I've just listed other documents that are also foundational, and you're not willing to include those in the bill. It's only…
NOBLE: I am not… in this bill. It is my intention to keep this bill clean.
TALARICO: So it's only the Ten commitments.
As John Adams famously noted, “the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion.” Anything that’s worth respecting in the Ten Commandments is echoed by countless other religions, and anything unique to the Ten Commandments is, to put it bluntly, sectarian nonsense that doesn’t belong in public schools.
Even though Noble can’t defend the individual Commandments, she still claims the full list needs to go up in public schools while everyone else’s beliefs need to be kept out. Why? Because her preferred list is “foundational” to our history. Who says that? Nobody except perhaps Christian pseudo-historian David Barton and his gullible followers. Certainly not experts in American history.
Noble is lying about the reason the Commandments needs to go up in classrooms. Her entire premise is a falsehood. Nothing in her religion apparently ever taught her that lying is a sin.
That’s when Talarico went for the kill. He called out the fact that Texas Republicans have constantly demanded that parents be allowed to override whatever educators believe is best for kids. If a subject could violate someone’s religious beliefs—sex education, for example—then ”parental rights” must triumph no matter what.
So why, Talarico wondered, shouldn’t parents get to override literal religious propaganda in the classroom?
TALARICO: And tell me about—because every time on this committee that we try to teach students values like empathy or kindness, we're told we can't because that's the parents role. Every time on this committee that we try to teach basic sex education to keep our kids safe, we're told that's the parents role.
But now you're putting religious commandments—literal Commandments—in our classrooms, and you're saying that's the state's role. Why is that not the parents role?
NOBLE: [Long pause] That's really an interesting rabbit trail that you've gone on with that. Because, really, what we're talking about here is a historical, foundational document to our nation's education history and our judicial history. Those other things are great and interesting, but they're not foundational to us, educationally and judicially.
TALARICO: Would you be comfortable with adding language to receive parental consent from all the parents of students in the classroom before putting it up?
NOBLE: I would not. I am, again, gonna keep it clean as it came over.
TALARICO: So you don't want parental consent when it comes to students receiving religious commandments?
NOBLE: I don’t believe that… Again, I think that these are foundational to being a good citizen and being a good member of a classroom. I know that our teachers are more and more and more having to fight for classroom management over the behavior of students. And I don't think that these Commandments would, in any way… I think these Commandments would help with that classroom management need.
This is where Noble gave away the game. She pretended this wasn’t really about forcing Christianity on kids; it was all about classroom management.
How would having these Commandments in the classroom help teachers? No clue. You’re not going to find a single teacher in the country whose rowdy students start behaving just because they see a sign that says they need to keep the Sabbath holy or not commit adultery. (If kids listened to whatever the motivational posters in their classrooms said, everything would be glorious. That’s not how reality works.)
If that’s the best argument Noble has, then she’s got nothing. There is no rational, secular argument for putting Christian Commandments in the classroom. Noble is grasping at paper straws.
Talarico finished his comments by alluding to his own Christian faith. He implied that he’s no less Christian than Noble is, but he still strongly opposed to this forced religion bill: “A religion that has to force people to put up a poster to prove its legitimacy is a dead religion,” he claimed.
He added that if they really cared about pushing Christianity on kids, there were more pressing issues.
TALARICO: I want to make a comment and thank you for answering my questions. I'll probably have more later. And I say this to you as a fellow Christian, representative, I know you're a devout Christian and so am I.
This bill to me is not only unconstitutional, it's not only un-American, I think it is also deeply unchristian.
And I say that because I believe this bill is idolatrous. I believe it is exclusionary. And I believe it is arrogant. And those three things in my reading of the Gospel are diametrically opposed to the teachings of Jesus.
You probably know Matthew 6:5, when Jesus says, ‘Don't be like the hypocrites who love to pray publicly on street corners. When you pray, go into your room and shut the door, and pray to your Father who is in secret.”
A religion that has to force people to put up a poster to prove its legitimacy is a dead religion. And it's not one that I want to be a part of. It's not one that I think I am a part of.
You know that in Scripture it says faith without works is what? Is dead. My concern is instead of bringing a bill that will feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick, we're instead mandating that people put up a poster.
And we both follow a teacher, a rabbi, who said, “Don't let the law get in the way of loving your neighbor.” Loving your neighbor is the most important law. It is the summation of all the law and all the prophets.
I would submit to you that our neighbor also includes the Hindu student who sits in a classroom, the Buddhist student who sits in a classroom, and an atheist student who sits in a classroom. And my question to you is: Does this bill truly love those students?
NOBLE: I'm going to go a different direction than I think you're trying to lead me, and that is that a very great wrong was done in our classrooms with that 1980 decision, because this document was in classrooms prior to that. In fact, I think that this bill actually rights a wrong that was done all those years ago based on what has now been considered a failed decision by the Supreme Court. So I contend that we are righting a wrong, not causing one.
TALARICO: Last thing I'll say, and I know we have other questions of the witnesses, is I just worry this is what gives us religious people a bad name. That instead of living out the way of Jesus, we're instead imposing our beliefs on other people. Instead of leading by example, we're leading by mandates. And so I'm very offended by this legislation. I know you and I have worked together, and I'm not casting aspersions on you, and I would love to work with you, but as it is currently written, I find this to be a deeply offensive bill. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Noble was referring to a 1980 case in which the Supreme Court struck down a similar bill in Kentucky placing the Ten Commandments in classrooms because they said it lacked a secular purpose. That was the right move. No legal scholar says that’s a “failed decision.” There’s nothing to “right” because that decision wasn’t wrong.
But Talarico is correct that this sort of bill gives Christians a bad name. When Christianity becomes synonymous with conservative Christianity and Christian Nationalism, it’s a branding problem for the entire faith. Talarico is genuinely upset that his colleagues aren’t just ruining public education, but dragging his own religion through the mud in the process. This bill won’t lead kids to Christianity. It’ll do far more to turn kids away from organized religion altogether.
The sad thing is that this bill will likely become law. It’ll pass the House and get the governor’s signature no matter what legal challenges may lie ahead. Texas Republicans don’t have the backbone or common sense to oppose a bill like this, and they’ve never held back when it comes to imposing their faith-based will on the entire state.
Talarico can’t stop that on his own. What he can do is make sure people know how idiotic this legislation is. It won’t help any educators in the classroom. It’s bound to be challenged in court. And it’s embarrassing for his faith. It would be easy to simply vote against it. Instead, he used his time to show the public—and his colleagues—how many legitimate problems exist with this bill and why there’s nothing anti-Christian about voting against it.
If the Republican majority was capable of being honest with themselves, they would acknowledge his points. But they’re far too power hungry, and far too afraid of backlash from the Christian Right, to stop now. That said, the bill was left pending in committee as of Tuesday.
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Slavery was foundational.
Women not being allowed to vote was foundational.
And people wonder why I think that reconciliation is impossible. Why I think Republicans would be quite happy to put people like me in interment camps. I live in this benighted state. I vote. And for my trouble, I get this bill. Not programs to help homeless youth, no I have to donate to a private organization to do that. Not programs to provide children with cancer free medical care, I have to donate to a private organization to do that. Support our schools, bake sales and car washes.