BISMARCK — North Dakota senators voted by a wide margin Wednesday, Feb. 3, to pass a bill that would authorize public schools to display the Ten Commandments in classrooms.

Lawmakers supported Senate Bill 2308 by a vote of 34 to 13, in spite of opposition from several members who said that displaying the Ten Commandments in North Dakota schools would all but guarantee a federal lawsuit.

In a warning to his colleagues, Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, said that if he could make an amendment to the bill, he would tack on the words "if you dare" after the bill's permission to post the religious text.

"What attorney at a school district is going to say, 'Yeah, go ahead'?" he asked. "Because you will be sued, no matter what it says here about immunity. You will be in federal court, you will lose."

Sen. Janne Myrdal, R-Edinburg, who introduced the bill, said she sees the bill as an important step for addressing a variety of social ills, such as divorce and teen pregnancy, which she said all trended upward after school-sponsored prayer was outlawed.

WDAY logo
listen live
watch live
Newsletter signup for email alerts

"I would encourage us all not to be offended," she said. "Because what offends you more, 'Thou shall not kill,' or murder? What offends you more, 'Thou shall not steal,' or theft?"

Sen. Janne Myrdal, R-Edinburg, is seen in this 2019 photo. (Tom Stromme / Bismarck Tribune)
Sen. Janne Myrdal, R-Edinburg, is seen in this 2019 photo. (Tom Stromme / Bismarck Tribune)

And responding to Holmberg's warning, Myrdal added, "Yes we should dare. And yes it is murky waters, but so is the state of our society even murkier."

Displays of the Ten Commandments in public buildings have been litigated in federal courts for decades. Opponents have argued that the practice violates the separation of church and state. But several lawmakers on Wednesday noted that the legal implications of permitting — rather than requiring — schools to post religious texts is hazy.

Sen. David Hogue, R-Minot, argued that lawmakers could not have a firm grasp on the legal liabilities until specific situations come up. "It's not up or down, black and white, Ten Commandments come out or stay in," he said. "You have to analyze the specific Ten Commandment statue, plaque or placard in the context of, does it have a valid secular purpose."

Still, Holmberg objected to arguments that displaying the Ten Commandments in schools would mean significant moral improvement for students. He recalled his time as a middle school teacher in 1980, when multiple federal courts held that it was unconstitutional for schools like his to require the display of the Ten Commandments in their classrooms.

"I can tell you, those eighth-graders were just as squirrelly after the Ten Commandments were removed than they were before," he said.

Having passed in the Senate, the bill will go before lawmakers in the House of Representatives later this session.

Readers can reach Forum News Service reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at awillis@forumcomm.com.