Teaching without Fear, Part 4: The Ten Commandments in Public Schools

Facebook Ad (4)Posting the Ten Commandments in public schools has recently been in the news in Texas and Georgia. I understand the desire to “take a stand” for God in our schools, and posting the Ten Commandments is seen by some as such a stand to take. However, I encourage educators to move beyond the symbolism of a plaque on a wall and, instead, focus on teaching about the influence of the Ten Commandments within an academic subject. The Supreme Court actually supports this use of the Ten Commandments in public schools. In the case of Stone v. Graham the Supreme Court addressed the issue of using the Ten Commandments in Kentucky public schools. A state law required posting the Ten Commandments in every classroom with private funding and with a statement at the bottom of the poster pointing out that “secular application of the Ten Commandments is clearly seen in its adoption as the fundamental legal code of Western Civilization and the Common Law of the United States.”

The Supreme Court found this unacceptable because:

“The Commandments do not confine themselves to arguably secular matters, such as honoring one's parents, killing or murder, adultery, stealing, false witness, and covetousness. Rather, the first part of the Commandments concerns the religious duties of believers: worshipping the Lord God alone, avoiding idolatry, not using the Lord's name in vain, and observing the Sabbath Day.”

While the Court ruled that in this particular case the Ten Commandments couldn’t be posted in the way the Kentucky law required, the Court also went out of its way to note:

“This is not a case in which the Ten Commandments are integrated into the school curriculum, where the Bible may constitutionally be used in an appropriate study of history, civilization, ethics, comparative religion, or the like. Posting of religious texts on the wall serves no such educational function.” (Emphasis added)

When appropriately connected to an academic subject, the Supreme Court supports public school educators teaching students about the Ten Commandments. Substance over symbolism is much better ground on which to take a stand.


Review your state’s academic standards for references to the Ten Commandments. For example, in Georgia students are to “explain the development of monotheism including the concepts developed by the ancient Hebrews.” In Texas, students are to “identify the impact of political and legal ideas contained in the following documents…the Jewish Ten Commandments.”

If your state is using Common Core English/Language Arts standards, the Bible is referenced four times for its relevance to literature. An English teacher recently told me how she uses this to teach about the Ten Commandments as the students read The Crucible.

Because of the influence of the Ten Commandments on Western culture, as the Supreme Court pointed out, they are relevant to teaching students about a variety of topics such as ethics (for example, bearing false witness), social movements (MLK Jr. developed his own “Ten Commandments”), legal issues (for example, murder and theft), and holidays (for example, Shavuot, is a Jewish celebration of the Torah and Ten Commandments. Pentecost is a Christian holiday during the same time as Shavuot).

Watch a series of 5-minute videos on the Ten Commandments that may give you ideas for their cultural relevance. They are produced by commentator, Dennis Prager. CLICK HERE.