The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Texas pushes church into state with bills on school chaplains, Ten Commandments

The bills, and others around the country, come in the wake of the Supreme Court’s recent ruling for a high school football coach who prayed with players

Then-Attorney General Greg Abbott (R) of Texas, now the state's governor, celebrates the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2005 decision allowing a Ten Commandments monument to stand outside the Texas Capitol. (Jana Birchum/Getty Images)
12 min

This story has been updated.

AUSTIN — Texas lawmakers had been scheduled to vote Tuesday on whether to require that the Ten Commandments be posted in every classroom in the state, part of a newly energized national effort to insert religion into public life.

Supporters say they believe the Supreme Court’s ruling last summer in favor of a high school football coach who prayed with players essentially removed any guardrails between religion and government.

The legislation that the House was considering is one of about a half-dozen religion bills approved this session by the Texas Senate, including one that would allow uncertified chaplains to replace trained, professional counselors in K-12 schools.

Texas’s biennial legislative session is short, chaotic and packed, and a midnight deadline passed without a vote on the Ten Commandments bill, meaning the measure is dead for the session. But several other measures promoting religion in public spaces still have a shot at passage before the regular legislative session is scheduled to end May 29.

Groups that watch church-state issues say efforts nationwide to fund and empower religion — and, more specifically, a particular type of Christianity — are more plentiful and aggressive than they have been in years. Americans United for Separation of Church and State says it is watching 1,600 bills around the country in states such as Louisiana and Missouri. Earlier this year, Idaho and Kentucky signed into law measures that could allow teachers and public school employees to pray in front of and with students while on duty.

Under right-leaning Supreme Court, the church-state wall is crumbling

Many legislators cite the Supreme Court’s June ruling in favor of Coach Joe Kennedy of Bremerton, Wash., who prayed with his players on the 50-yard line. They see the Supreme Court as righting the American ship after a half-century of wrongly separating church and state.

“There is absolutely no separation of God and government, and that’s what these bills are about. That has been confused; it’s not real,” said Texas state Sen. Mayes Middleton (R), who co-sponsored or authored three of the religion bills. “When prayer was taken out of schools, things went downhill — discipline, mental health. It’s something I heard a lot on porches when I was campaigning. It’s something I’ve thought about for a long time.”

Those who object to the bills say they reflect a country that is tipping into a new, dangerous phase in its church-state balance, with people in power who want to assert a version of Christian dominance.

Josh Houston, who has advocated at the Capitol for progressive and minority religious groups since 2005, said the kinds of bills passing chambers this year would have gone nowhere in the past in Texas. Even though religious expressions in public places in Texas are common, he said, there was an understanding that public employees represent the government and that legally the government shouldn’t impose religion. People have forgotten violent episodes in the United States’ past over religion, he said, such as when dozens of people were killed or injured in the mid-1800s when Catholics and Protestants fought about the use of specific Bibles in public schools.

“We’re entering a new space,” Houston said last week. “We got this right for most of the 20th century, but now people are forgetting the past. We’re at the point now where bills preference one faith over others. You point that out, and there is no interest in negotiation.”

Opponents and ‘accommodators’

Citizens and advocates have signed up to testify by the dozens against the Texas religion bills this session. They have noted that the bills followed a 2021 Texas law that requires school districts to post “In God We Trust” signs in public schools if someone donates them. Thousands of signs have since been donated and hung. The measures have pushed some Texans into activism and others to decide to leave the state.

Zach Freeman, a stay-at-home dad of three in Colleyville, Tex., has gotten at least 300,000 views on two TikToks he made in the past week against two of the Texas religion bills. He is worried that an organized and well-funded minority of activists on the right are damaging public education.

After court ruling, activists push prayer into schools

A sixth-generation Texan, Freeman grew up in a religiously conservative part of the state where prayers were common at public school events. “I don’t have a problem with anyone’s private expression, but Jesus said, ‘Go in a room and pray privately.’ That’s what these bills are, false Christianity, presenting an exterior that doesn’t match the interior. It’s presented as though it’s to include Christians, and what it does is exclude everyone else.”

After 23 years in Texas, Sravan Krishna plans to move his family out of the state before his two young children start school in the fall. A practicing Hindu who attended Christian schools as a boy, Krishna said the departure will bring a “lot of pain” in the short term. But an accumulation of things — from growing opposition to diversity and anti-racism education, as well as book bans and what he calls “Christian nationalism” — forced his hand, he said.

“In the beginning, I thought: ‘How can a place like this, one of the wealthiest Zip codes in the state, be so backward?’” Krishna said. “I thought: ‘Oh, they’re just misinformed,’ but from there it never changed. There isn’t much of an uproar, and it’s even welcomed, this forcing of a particular religious view.”

Andrew Whitehead, an expert on religious nationalism at the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, said his research shows that Americans have complex and even contradictory impulses around church-and-state relations.

His research shows that a decreasing percentage of Americans agree with statements such as “being a Christian is very important to being an American” and the government “should declare America a Christian nation.” However, he said, many Americans still identify as Christian, even if nominally.

In the often-cited research Whitehead has done with University of Oklahoma sociologist Sam Perry, they found that when it comes to ranking and measuring Americans’ support for merging Christianity and nationalism, the biggest group is what the men call “accommodators.”

“When they see the Ten Commandments, they think Christianity is a net good in society. They think, ‘Yeah, this country has always been kind of Christian.’ So they mostly stay quiet,” Whitehead said. “They think, ‘These things don’t affect me.’”

A key ruling

The Supreme Court has been strengthening the free exercise of religion for the past decade, said Washington University professor of religion and law John Inazu. But the court, in the case of the football coach — known as Kennedy v. Bremerton School District — not only upheld his right to pray, on the field, in front of and with players, but also set aside 52-year-old rules that courts have used to decide whether something violates the U.S. Constitution’s ban on the government “establishing” religion. Those rules say a practice must have a secular purpose and not create an excessive “entanglement” with religion.

More states are paying to send children to private and religious schools

In the Bremerton decision, Justice Neil M. Gorsuch wrote that instead of those rules, courts should look to “historical practices,” traditions and the understandings of the Founding Fathers.

To some legal experts, the court in Bremerton created a vague, large hole where an existing balance between church and state had been.

About the Ten Commandments bill, Harvard Law School constitutional law scholar and Bloomberg columnist Noah Feldman wrote last month that before Bremerton, “the Texas bill would’ve been an obviously unconstitutional establishment of religion, something prohibited by the First Amendment of the Constitution. Now, however, it comes under the disturbing category of ‘Who knows?’”

“History and tradition,” Feldman wrote, could be used to both uphold and strike down the Texas bill. “Into the 20th century, many public schools started the day with Bible-reading and prayer. These practices, ruled unconstitutional in the 1960s and ’70s, are part of the American history and tradition,” as is that of the courts striking them down, Feldman wrote.

Chaplains and commandments

David Donatti of the Texas ACLU said that right now there is a “particular aggressiveness that’s unique” among conservatives pushing Christianity into public places. It’s fed, he said, “by the perception that the courts will allow this right-wing Christian nationalism to take root, that, now the doors are wide open.”

About a half-dozen religion-related bills have drawn attention this session in Texas.

One is the Ten Commandments bill, which is novel in that it mandates a specific religious text be hung everywhere. Its text — from a Protestant version of the commandments — is a copy of what’s on a monument outside, on the Capitol grounds. That monument was put up in 1961 and challenged at the Supreme Court in 2005. The same day the court ruled the Texas statue could stay up because it had been there for a while and was more “passive” and historical than religious, it also ruled against framed copies of the Ten Commandments in two Kentucky courthouses, which were newer and ruled to be motivated by religion.

Introducing the House version of the Ten Commandments bill in early May, state Rep. Candy Noble (R) told the Public Education Committee that this version of the decalogue is “foundational” to America’s legal and educational systems, and that it was once common for the commandments to be displayed in public buildings.

“The problem is that for the last few decades, the expression of that historical heritage has been restricted,” she said. “Restore those liberties that were lost and that remind students of the fundamental foundation of American and Texas law.”

Then committee member Rep. James Talarico (D) spoke. A seminarian, former schoolteacher and grandson of a Baptist preacher, Talarico started by acknowledging that he, Noble and others on the dais are Christians who try to obey the Ten Commandments.

“It says, ‘Thou shall not create idols.’ The idea that some people would try to make an object, like two tablets, to worship, rather than God — are you worried this bill is idolatrous?” he asked.

Noble replied: “No, this bill is reflective of the principles we need in our classrooms. I get where you’re going, but this is historical and it is foundational.”

Said Talarico: “Representative Noble, you are devout, and so am I. This bill to me is not only unconstitutional, not only un-American, I think it is also deeply un-Christian.”

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The Texas Senate this session also passed a bill to allow districts to require schools to set aside time for staff and students to pray and read religious texts, and a second bill to allow public employees to “engage in religious prayer and speech” — modeled after the coach ruling. Those two bills had not made it out of House committees by Monday.

Another bill would have authorized the state to approve the building of a sculpture on the Capitol grounds of a pregnant woman with a see-through belly and fetus inside. It passed the Senate, but the deadline for it to get to a House committee passed.

A few weeks later, state Rep. Cole Hefner (R), the House sponsor of the chaplain bill, said the legislation wasn’t about pressing religion.

“We have to give schools all the tools; with all we’re experiencing, with mental health problems, other crises, this is just another tool,” he said.

Then he rejected a half-dozen amendments.

Talarico proposed requiring parental consent. Hefner and the majority rejected it. Another lawmaker proposed adding that chaplains must serve students of all faiths and not proselytize. Rejected. Another proposed striking the bill’s requirement that every school district in Texas, within six months, vote up or down whether to have chaplains.

State Rep. Erin Zwiener (D) asked whether it would be better to not force culture war “fuel” on the districts with a public vote. School board members are getting death threats, she said, questioning the value of asking every school board to vote on this.

“I don’t think it’s a problem to know where they stand on this,” Hefner said before he and the majority rejected it.

“You and I have engaged in good faith thoughtful conversations about this legislation. I consider you a friend,” Talarico told Hefner, “I’m not trying to undermine or gut this bill, just to put common-sense guard rails.”

Hefner eventually accepted Talarico’s amendment requiring chaplains to be accredited by a professional association, like chaplains in the military or hospitals. But when Hefner took the amended bill to the Senate author, Talarico’s proposal was stripped.

State Rep. Gene Wu (D), one of the lawmakers whose amendments Hefner rejected, said later in his office that he believes bills this session are part of the reason Christianity is declining in the United States.

“We constantly kick the poor in the teeth, tell the sick to go just die and never take care of prisoners. The hypocrisy is not a bug, it’s a feature.”