In Utah schools, the Ten Commandments could be used in U.S. history courses under updated bill

An initial draft of the proposal would have required that public schools display a poster of the Ten Commandments.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Mike Petersen, R-North Logan, on the House floor during the start of 2024 legislative session on Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2024. Petersen is sponsoring a bill that would allow the Ten Commandments to be be studied in U.S. history courses throughout Utah.

The Ten Commandments could be studied in U.S. history courses throughout Utah under an updated bill, the latest effort in a legislative push to control what is taught in K-12 public schools.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Michael Petersen, R-North Logan, argued before members of the House Education Committee on Tuesday that the Ten Commandments, a document rooted in Judeo-Christian religious tradition, has an “undeniable place” in U.S. history.

The bill comes amid a separate proposal that would prohibit teachers from displaying pride flags or any other symbol perceived as endorsing “political” viewpoints at school.

“The Ten Commandments, while it is a religious document, is a very historic document,” said Petersen, “in that it colored the way our founders wrote the Constitution, wrote the Declaration [of Independence]. It colored the way they developed our civil society.”

The bill, HB0269, is an amended version of a previous draft titled “Ten Commandments in Public Schools,” which would have required public schools to display a poster of the Ten Commandments.

The updated bill removes that requirement and instead adds the Ten Commandments, as well as the Magna Carta, to “a list of historical documents and principles” that schools may include for “thorough study.”

The Magna Carta was issued in 1215 and was the first document to declare the king of England and his government were not above the law. It later influenced constitutional laws worldwide, including the U.S. Constitution.

Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, said Tuesday that while she is religious and “reveres” the Ten Commandments, she is concerned that nonreligious students would feel uncomfortable, especially with the first four Commandments, which instruct people how to worship the Judeo-Christan God.

Those are: “You shall have no other gods before me; You shall not make idols; You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain;” and “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.”

“I just think of kids who aren’t Christian, who maybe don’t have a religion, and how this is going to strike them,” Moss said.

In Christianity, the Ten Commandments serve as a set of moral laws to live by. According to the biblical story in the book of Exodus, they were given by God to the prophet Moses on Mount Sinai as he led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt.

Specifically, the bill would define the Ten Commandments, also known as the “Decalogue” recorded in the Bible in two passages: Exodus 20:2-17 and Deuteronomy 5:6-21.

While the bill would not require Utah students to study the Ten Commandments as part of U.S. history, it would allow them to examine all of its principles.

“I’m anticipating that teachers wouldn’t teach this as a Sunday school class,” Petersen said. “This is a document that helps [students] understand what were the founders thinking about when they founded the country.”

The proposed bill also comes amid a recent wave of anti-DEI measures that prohibit various equitable practices and programs within Utah K-12 public schools.

Current law prevents teachers from endorsing a certain religion or persuading students to change their religion. But Petersen argued the Ten Commandments would be instructed within its historical context.

“I think there’s a hesitancy to share them,” Petersen said. “And so I want to be explicit that we can teach these things.”

Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, countered that the Ten Commandments have no place in public school and that her children could learn about them in catechism, which is a summary of religious principles taught to Christians.

“We have to think about all the people that reside here in Utah who may not practice religion,” Romero said. " I feel there is a reason why we don’t have the Ten Commandments in schools.”

The bill passed through the committee 6-2.

Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.