Joe Duhownik

PHOENIX (CN) — Arizona’s House Education Committee advanced a bill Tuesday that would allow public school teachers and administrators to post and discuss the Ten Commandments in the classroom.

State Senator Anthony Kern, the bill’s sponsor, says the Ten Commandments shaped the country's heritage.

“Our history is the Ten Commandments,” the Republican from Glendale told the committee Tuesday afternoon. “Our history is Judeo-Christian values.

“It is because of the Christian religion that we have allowed other religions to come in and be known,” he added. “It’s because of us being very tolerant.”

The Democrats on the committee weren’t convinced.

“From my learning of history, our heritage is based on us coming in and stealing land away from Indigenous people and taking their religion away and replacing it with ours,” state Representative Nancy Gutierrez said as she voted against the bill. “We are not a Christian nation, but a nation that allows people to practice based on their own faith. The Ten Commandments are not in our state curriculum, so our schools should not be teaching it.”

The Supreme Court ruled in the 1980 case Stone v Graham that requiring public school classrooms to display the Ten Commandments violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment by endorsing a specific religious belief. Republican state Representative David Cook of Scottsdale guessed that Kern’s bill, Senate Bill 1151 would violate that same statute.

“I think this thing is gonna be unconstitutional,” he said. “I don’t know how it got here. I took an oath to uphold the Arizona and the country’s constitution.”

He voted in support of the bill, but said he hopes the rules committee takes a close look.

Kern said his bill wouldn’t violate the First Amendment because it doesn’t require the Ten Commandments to be posted, rather, it gives teachers the option.

“It’s not favoring one religion over another,” he said. “It is simply an opt-in.”

Kern said the foundation of the U.S. government, including the three branches of federal government and the structure of legislative districts, are based in the Old Testament of the Bible.

“Could you tell me what founding documents the Ten Commandments appear in?” asked state Representative Judy Schwiebert, a Democrat from Phoenix.

Kern conceded that they are not found anywhere in the nation’s founding documents, but he argued that representative government is inspired by Moses in the Old Testament.

“Our way of life and our system of government and the reason why America is America is because of the Ten Commandments,” he said.

A representative for the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona told the committee that the nation's system of government also must “exercise particular care” in maintaining the separation of church and state.

“When the government puts up a Ten Commandments display, it sends a troubling message that anyone who does not follow the state’s favorite faith is a second-class citizen,” Gaelle Esposito said. “It’s un-American and it unnecessarily divides communities while undermining our fundamental commitment to religious liberty.”

Cook asked Kern if he would be open to an amendment adding the Book of Mormon or other religious texts.

Kern said one could run a separate bill to include other religious texts, but he would prefer not to amend his own bill.

“I wouldn’t say I’d vote for it,” he added after the meeting. “But I’d say they’re free to do so.”

State Representative Laura Terech, a Democrat from Scottsdale, voted against the bill, saying she believes in the separation of church and state.

Kern said that concept doesn’t exist.

“The lie of separation of church and state is just that,” he said. “A lie. There is no such thing.”

He said the First Amendment only prevents Congress from mandating a religion.

As she voted no, Terech threw an extra shot at the Trump-endorsed lawmaker.

“Though I do have to wonder, if the Ten Commandments were posted in classrooms, if that would have prevented people from participating in the events of January 6,” she said.

Kern is under an FBI investigation for his role in the 2021 attempted insurrection, and faces a campaign finance complaint for apparently using campaign cash to attend it.

“That was a cheap shot by a very cheap representative,” Kern said after the meeting.

The committee voted 6-4 to move the bill to the House for a full vote.

It passed the Senate in February by a vote of 16-12, also on party lines.