Monumental offense

By Mark Hancock

According to House Bill 1330, the 2009 measure that allowed the monument’s installation, the Ten Commandments “are an important component of the foundation of the laws and legal system” of both the United States and Oklahoma and are frequently cited in court decisions. “The role played by the Ten Commandments in our nation’s heritage [is] common throughout America,” declared the law.

Such pronouncements don’t sway Bruce Prescott, the plaintiff in the ACLU lawsuit.

“To argue that the monument merely commemorates something historical rather than religious is a slap in the face to the many Oklahomans, like myself, who incorporate the Ten Commandments into our religious practice,” said Prescott, who is an ordained Baptist minister.

The monument, which is about 6 feet tall and 3 feet wide, displays the text of the Ten Commandments and three Christian symbols: the Eye of Providence (also known as the all-seeing eye of God) that denotes the holy trinity, a Chi-Rho (two Greek letters that form a monogram for Christ) and two Stars of David.

A matter of faith
Just as the Star of David on the flag of Israel indicates that it is a Jewish state, these symbols on the monument tell anyone who sees them — anyone visiting the state Capitol — that Oklahoma endorses Christianity and Judaism and not others, according to Brady Henderson, legal director of the ACLU of Oklahoma.

“If I walk up to that monument and I’m Hindu, if I’m Buddhist, if I’m an atheist or agnostic, I am told that I’m wrong,” he said. “My faith is directly challenged by that monument even if I’m certain types of Christian or certain types of Jewish.”

Henderson said it’s important to consider that the Ten Commandments are located only 10 feet from the state Capitol building and that no similar monuments are nearby.

“It’s
placed in such a way that it’s set apart and given this sort of solemn
and dignified status that very clearly shows a state endorsement of its
religious message,” he said.

Haskell County
In
the passage of HB 1330, proponents argued that the Ten Commandments
monument was embraced for its historical, and not religious,
significance.

“The
choice of whether to place and where to place a monument on any capitol
grounds is made by the elected representatives of the people: the
legislature and the governor,” said Hiram Sasser, director of litigation
at Liberty Institute, a Texas-based religious advocacy nonprofit that
will defend the monument in the lawsuit.

Most
lawsuits of this kind, including a similar case involving Haskell
County, are filed in federal court. However, the ACLU chose to file this
suit in state court in hopes to educate Oklahomans and bring attention
to little-known Oklahoma laws that protect religious freedom.

“This
case comes after the Haskell County one, after higher courts made clear
that you can’t simply stick a religious monument on public soil in
Oklahoma,” said Henderson.

In
2009, the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered that a similar
monument on the Haskell County courthouse lawn be removed because it
violated the First Amendment. That decision was upheld a year later by
the U.S. Supreme Court.

Sasser said the Haskell County and state Capitol situations have significant differences.

“This
monument is different because it has a different history, purpose and
context. This monument is legally the equivalent of the Ten Commandments
monument the U.S. Supreme Court approved in 2005 in Van Orden v. Perry and is currently sitting on the Texas Capitol grounds,” Sasser said.

“The bottom line is the state (Oklahoma) basically tracked and followed everything that the Supreme Court said in Van Orden v. Perry. There’s
a big difference between a situation where you’ve got a government
entity trying to follow the law and do the right things versus one
that’s just not doing that. I think that’s the lesson here. The state of
Oklahoma just wanted to make sure they followed Supreme Court precedent
to the letter, and that’s what they did.”

The
U.S. Fifth Circuit ruled that the Texas monument, of which the Oklahoma
structure is a replica, was allowed to remain on Capitol grounds there
because the message it conveys is both religious and secular.

The
Oklahoma Capitol grounds monument was installed in November 2012. Its
$20,000 cost was funded through private donations and the family of
state Rep. Mike Ritze, R-Broken Arrow, who authored HB 1330.

Brittany Pickering

Brittany is a copy editor and occasional writer. She holds a bachelors degree in English from the University of Central Oklahoma and a certificate in publishing from The Publishing Institute at the University of Denver. She has spent the last six years copyediting books and journalistic writing.

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