The other day I saw a video and I immediately knew I had to share it with you guys. It’s actually a few months old but it was new to me so I figured maybe some of you missed it as well – it’s a video of a Christian Texas state congressperson discussing a bill that would require all public schools to display the Ten Commandments in every classroom. And when I set it up like that, you may guess that I’m sharing it as rage bait, but I swear I’m not. Watch.
That was James Talarico, the congressional representative for the city of Austin, Texas, which you may know as one of the few islands of “blue” in a sea of Texas red. I found this video really interesting for a few reasons: first, because I immediately found him so incredibly well-spoken and empathetic; and second, because a lot of the comments I saw on social media were actually very critical of him, especially among people who also disagree with the idea of displaying the Ten Commandments in public schools. The main problem people seemed to have was that it’s wrong for two American politicians to be talking at all about religion, when our country was founded on separation of church and state.
And I get that, I really do! I am, as you may know, a secularist who strongly believes that religion has no place in any government building. As soon as I hear a legislator make a religious argument for anything, I usually think that that politician should be politely escorted from their job. I don’t care if you only want to give kids free school lunch because a god told you to. Just do it because it makes our world better.
But despite that, I think that what Talarico did here was really a great rhetorical trick: while theocrats like his colleague in that video, Republican Candy Noble, pretend that they have secular reasons to insert their religion into government, we all know that the truth is that they’re doing it for religious purposes. To literally create a theocracy. There is simply no point in arguing with Noble that her bill is unconstitutional as it violates separation of Church and State because she KNOWS this. The entire point is to pass the bill and force the current theocratic Supreme Court to overturn the previous rulings that this is unconstitutional.
So Talarico ignores the secular arguments in order to have a more productive, and possibly more persuasive, argument with Noble. Now, there’s very little chance that one argument will change the mind of a woman of such religious conviction that she’s happily trying to do away with democracy, but if there IS a chance, this is probably how to do it: figure out the real reason she believes what she believes, establish that you have common ground, and use the same source she’s using to negate her argument.
And even if this wouldn’t necessarily convince this one theocrat, it may have an impact on the other politicians in the room, and the thousands, or tens of thousands of people who watch it later on the Internet.
Regardless, the clip getting some popularity online is what alerted me to this entire news story, which I had missed from back in May. I didn’t realize we had slid back to early-2000s Christian theocrat bullshit but here we are: yep, Republicans are once again back to trying silly nonsense like displaying the Ten Commandments in public. Like how in 2001, when Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore secretly installed a 2.5 ton monument of the Ten Commandments in the rotunda of the courthouse in the middle of the night without permission. He was ordered to remove it, he refused, and so HE was removed from the bench. And then in 2012, an Oklahoma congress critter pulled the same stunt but fucked up and included several spelling errors on his one-ton anticonstitutional abomination. Some hero ran over it two years later, smashing it to bits.
So yeah, 2023 became a real throwback year for Christian conservatives as they try to push as many bills through state legislatures as possible that violate separation of Church and State. The Texas bill is a copycat of one from South Carolina’s hardworking lawmakers and let me just say it is VERY funny. Because it’s not just something like “teachers should be allowed to display the Ten Commandments in their classrooms if they want.” The bills demand that every single classroom MUST display a poster or framed image of the Ten Commandments “in a conspicuous place” “in a size and typeface that is legible to a person with average vision from anywhere in the classroom” and in exactly this format, capitalization and all:
THE TEN COMMANDMENTS
I AM the LORD thy God.
Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
This obviously fails the “Lemon test,” which the Supreme Court has thus far used to determine whether something violates separation of Church and State: a law must “(1) have a secular purpose; (2) have a predominantly secular effect; and (3) not foster “excessive entanglement” between government and religion.” But the new Supreme Court probably doesn’t really give a shit about the Lemon Test, so who cares?
The good news is that this Texas Bill did not get passed. Not necessarily because of Talarico’s powerful argument against it – following this session, the bill was passed in the Texas Senate and ended up back in Talarico’s House of Representatives, where Republicans outnumber Democrats 85 to 64. The only way the Democrats can really stop these kinds of bills from going through is to essentially waste time, in a tactic known in Texas as, I swear to god, “chubbing.” It’s kind of like filibustering, but politicians just draw out extended debates until time for the session runs out and the bill essentially dies. That’s what happened to the Ten Commandments bill: at the end of May, Democrats successfully stalled to the point that that bill didn’t come up for vote and is now deceased.
That’s good news, but one of the reasons why it was relatively easy for time to run out is because of the sheer amount of idiotic bills Texas Republicans were pushing for. For instance, the Texas Congress DID pass a bill that will allow public schools to hire religious chaplains instead of licensed counselors. Those chaplains don’t need to meet the same standards as a school counselor. Now, I went to a very poor high school without any decent counselor on staff but I honestly think that might be better than having a preacher posing as a counselor tricking teenagers into spilling all their innermost thoughts, in a state that is becoming increasingly dangerous for gay, trans, and nonbinary youth as well as teens facing the possibility of pregnancy. It’s horrifying to think of how much damage one conservative chaplain could do in a midsize high school.
So, while this particular Ten Commandments bill rightfully died, if you live in the US you should be on alert for others like it being introduced in other state legislatures, and in the many other stupid laws theocrats introduce in the hope of tearing down the wall between Church and State.