By Kathy Finn
NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - The Louisiana state House on Monday voted to approve placing a Ten Commandments monument on the state capitol grounds in Baton Rouge.
Democratic Representative Patrick Williams, the bill's author, said he recognizes the First Amendment provides for separation of church and state and that the intent of his bill is not to promote the religious importance of the commandments.
"The significance is historical," he told Reuters. "Our laws are based on the Ten Commandments. In fact, without them, a lot of our laws would not exist."
The measure, which passed unanimously without debate, now goes to the Senate. Republican Governor Bobby Jindal has said he will sign the bill if it lands on his desk.
Williams' bill provides for installation of a monument up to six feet tall, to be paid for with private donations. He says he modeled the bill on a Texas law that allowed placement of a granite monument displaying the Commandments on the Texas Capitol grounds, where it stands among more than a dozen monuments to historical figures and events.
The Supreme Court in 2005 upheld the right of Texas to display the monument, saying "the Commandments have an undeniable historical meaning."
Williams said his bill emphasizes the historical significance of the commandments by stipulating the Louisiana monument include a plaque with the words, "Context for acknowledging America's religious history."
But constitutional scholar Marci Hamilton told Reuters the clause doesn't sound as neutral as it should.
"If the government is sending a pro-religion message, that's unconstitutional," said Hamilton, a professor at Yeshiva University in New York and author of "God vs. the Gavel: Religion and the Rule of Law."
In the same year the Supreme Court upheld the Texas monument, it ruled against a display of the Ten Commandments in two rural Kentucky courthouses, deeming that tribute a governmental effort to promote religion.
In 2001, a lower federal court ordered the removal of a two-ton Ten Commandments monument that had been placed in the Alabama Supreme Court building at the behest of state Chief Justice Roy Moore.
Williams said that the Louisiana monument would fit in with existing monuments at the Capitol that pay tribute to history, such as the gravesite of former Governor Huey Long and monuments to French explorers who settled the area.
But Hamilton said that while the Constitution may allow the display of the Ten Commandments "along with other sources of law such as the Magna Carta," it appears that the Louisiana proposal would put "a Christian-backed monument" on the Capitol grounds.
"The Legislature is signaling that it's welcoming millions of dollars of litigation, because this will be challenged," she said.
(Editing by Corrie MacLaggan and Jerry Norton)