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ND House OKs Ten Commandments bill despite lawsuit warnings

The proposal sailed through the House in a 76-16 vote in spite of recent warnings from legal experts, state education groups and several lawmakers on the chamber floor that it would be unconstitutional and likely to prompt federal lawsuits against the state or local school districts.

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BISMARCK — The North Dakota House approved a proposal Tuesday, March 30, to authorize public schools to display the Ten Commandments in classrooms.

The proposal sailed through the House in a 76-16 vote in spite of recent warnings from legal experts, state education groups and several lawmakers on the chamber floor that it would be unconstitutional and likely to prompt federal court challenges to the state or local school districts.

Lawmakers endorsing Senate Bill 2308 argued that an amendment requiring other historical documents be displayed alongside the Ten Commandments ensures that the proposal is constitutional, arguing that the effort is consistent with the principles of the country's founders and would help to instill moral qualities in students.

"Our country was founded on these Christian principles, specifically spelled out in the Ten Commandments and all of our laws are based on these teachings," said Rep. Terry Jones, R-New Town, who called on colleagues to vote the bill through in order to "do everything we can to keep that taught to our children" in order "to keep these values in our schools."

The bill includes a section declaring teachers, school administrators and school districts "immune" from liability in legal challenges against displays of the Judeo-Christian text, but attorneys and education groups warned lawmakers in a committee hearing last week that this provision would have no effect against inevitable federal lawsuits.

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One speaker, former assistant attorney general Murray Sagsveen, told the committee that he represented North Dakota in a 1979 federal lawsuit over the posting of the Ten Commandments in a Grand Forks school district.

"I remember that case very well because I lost it," Sagsveen said. He added that today's bill is likely to result in a repeat of the 1979 loss: "A school board will yield to the pressure, the school board will be sued and will certainly lose."

Some lawmakers and legal experts warned that the amendment requiring historical context in the displays would do little to fend off these legal challenges.

"My concern with this bill is that it is still unconstitutional," said Rep. Karla Rose Hanson, D-Fargo, who argued that the bill still has a clear "religious intent," which the amendment only masks. Hanson said that passing the bill would waste taxpayer dollars by saddling local school districts who act on the bill's provision with costly lawsuits.

In an interview last week , a law professor raised similar concerns. Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the University of California, Berkeley School of Law, said the apparent intention of the bill is still to display the Ten Commandments and convey its religious value, meaning it would still violate the Constitution even with the condition about historical documents.

But Sen. Lawrence Klemin, R-Bismarck, urged his colleagues to vote for the bill and argued that today's conservative-controlled Supreme Court would likely view the legal precedent differently should North Dakota's case ever go that far.

"Thou shalt not kill this bill," he said before the bill overwhelmingly passed out of the chamber.

The bill returns to the Senate, where it was already approved by a wide margin, for concurrence with the House's changes.

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

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