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Okla. Ten Commandments display could carve new church-state path

OKLAHOMA CITY (BP)–Seven years after Alabama removed a Ten Commandments monument from a government building under federal court-order, the state of Oklahoma is preparing to erect its own Ten Commandments monument on capitol grounds, and supporters say they have the backing of recent Supreme Court precedent.

The Oklahoma legislature easily passed and the governor signed a bill last year allowing a Ten Commandments monument to be placed on the capitol grounds. The monument will use identical language and even an identical design to one on the Texas state capitol grounds — the same one the Supreme Court upheld in its 2005 Van Orden v. Perry decision.

That Supreme Court ruling was handed down two years after former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore was removed from office for refusing to remove a Ten Commandments monument from the state’s judicial building. Moore’s monument was privately funded, as is the one in Oklahoma. Rep. Mike Ritze, the bill’s sponsor and a Southern Baptist deacon, says he and his family paid the roughly $10,000 to construct the six-foot by three-foot monument, which has yet to be completed. The granite was mined earlier this year. It’s also going to cost about $13,000 to erect it — money that is being raised using private funds.

“This is part of the historical heritage of our legal system, where we get our laws,” Ritze, a member of Arrow Heights Baptist Church in Broken Arrow, Okla., told Baptist Press.

The state legislature’s bill states that the Ten Commandments are “an important component of the foundation of the laws and legal system” of the U.S. and Oklahoma and that federal and state courts “frequently cite the Ten Commandments in published decisions.” It also says “acknowledgements of the role played by the Ten Commandments in our nation’s heritage are common throughout America.”

The bill also gives permission for the Liberty Institute, a Texas-based Christian legal group, to defend the monument if it ends up in court. The bill passed a Republican-controlled legislature and was signed by a Democratic governor, Brad Henry. Groups such as the ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State had urged him to veto it.

“It’s not going to cost the taxpayers anything to defend it,” Ritze said.

The fact that a state is erecting a Ten Commandments monument at a time when federal courts are still split on church-state issues is significant. Just this year, Haskell County in Oklahoma was forced to remove its granite Ten Commandments monument following a decision by the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals — the same circuit that would consider any case concerning the Oklahoma capitol monument. However, also this year, a different court — the Sixth Circuit — allowed a framed copy of the Ten Commandments to remain in the Grayson County, Ky., courthouse. Each was part of a larger display of historical monuments or documents.

The Supreme Court has not been clear on the issue.

The same day in 2005 the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the Texas monument to remain, it also ordered framed copies of the Ten Commandments to be removed from two Kentucky courthouses. The Texas and Kentucky rulings were both 5-4 decisions. (The Supreme Court did not take up the Alabama Roy Moore case and allowed lower court rulings to stand.)

Liberal Justice Stephen Breyer was the swing vote in that pair of cases but did not issue a clear line on what is and is not allowed. He called the Kentucky displays unconstitutional — both had been posted in recent years — but gave the thumbs up to the Texas display because it was part of a larger display, because its purpose was not religious, and because, apparently, it had been standing for four-plus decades. The court, he said, “must take account of context” and also what the “consequence” would be if it was removed. Ruling against the Texas monument, he said, might “encourage disputes concerning the removal of longstanding depictions of the Ten Commandments from public buildings across the Nation.”

Of course, the Oklahoma display is not old, although it will be an exact duplicate of an old monument.

The Supreme Court has not reversed its Kentucky decision, but Ten Commandments supporters believe they have the votes if the justices decide to do so. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor — who voted against not only the Kentucky but also the Texas display — has been replaced by Justice Samuel Alito, considered far more likely to allow such monuments and displays to remain. Supporters may have the five necessary votes.

“The state of Oklahoma is actually in a better position than the state of Texas was in Van Orden v. Perry,” Hiram Sasser, an attorney with the Liberty Institute, told Baptist Press. “… They wanted to use whatever version the U.S. Supreme Court said was OK in Van Orden v. Perry. They’re simply trying to follow the Supreme Court precedent.”

Sasser also points to a recent opinion in which Justice Anthony Kennedy — a swing vote on the court — wrote that the “goal of avoiding governmental endorsement [of religion] does not require eradication of all religious symbols in the public realm.” Seeming to give his approval to a cross on the side of a public highway, Kennedy wrote, “The Constitution does not oblige government to avoid any public acknowledgment of religion’s role in society.”

Said Sasser, “I think Justice Kennedy sent a pretty strong message that these types of passive displays are not worth the trouble to fight against. It appears that with Justices Kennedy, Alito, Roberts, Scalia and Thomas, that they’re uninterested in tearing down monuments because they happen to have some sort of religious connotation.”

Ritze, a Republican, decided to promote the bill after seeing Ten Commandments monuments on the capitol grounds of other states and learning that Oklahoma did not have one. Texas’ monument was donated in 1961 by the Fraternal Order of Eagles, which donated more than 150 such monuments to public places between 1955 and 1985. The monuments were partially inspired by Cecile B. Demille’s movie “The Ten Commandments.”

“Apparently one was donated but they never did receive it,” Ritze said. “So I began drafting a bill to have one placed on the capitol grounds in our state.”

The Founding Fathers likely would be amazed there is any controversy over a Ten Commandments monument, Ritze said.

“Just look at government buildings all over our country,” he said. “You have ‘In God We Trust’ on our money. You go in the Supreme Court — it’s all over the Supreme Court building. You go in the front door, and there’s a picture of Moses holding the Ten Commandments.”
Michael Foust is an assistant editor of Baptist Press.

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