Oklahoma Court Orders State to Remove Ten Commandments Monument

by | July 28, 2015

By Rick M. Green Capitol Bureau

The Oklahoma Supreme Court has rejected a last ditch attempt by the state to keep a Ten Commandments monument next to the Oklahoma Capitol.

Monday, the court turned down a request from the state to reconsider its June 30 ruling calling for removal of the 6-foot granite statue.

This sets the stage for it to be taken down within a few weeks, said Brady Henderson, legal director for ACLU Oklahoma, which filed the lawsuit.

"Obviously we're pleased with the decision," Henderson said. "The whole case is controversial, but something that is undeniable is that the court is getting this right. The court is following the law."

The monument violates a section of the Oklahoma Constitution prohibiting state property from being used to further religions, the court said. The original ruling and the denial of a rehearing came on 7-2 votes.

Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt has argued there are historical and secular aspects to the Ten Commandments that should allow the monument to stay.

After the original ruling, Pruitt said he believed the court "got it wrong." He did not release a statement Monday.

Supreme Court Chief Justice John Reif wrote about the religious nature of the Ten Commandments in a concurring opinion for denying the rehearing request.

"The text of the Ten Commandments displayed on the monument begins with the declaration 'I AM the LORD thy GOD,' " Reif stated. "This declaration is followed by four directions for the worship of God."

He also said the circumstances of this case are different from one in which the court allowed a 50-foot cross at State Fair Park in Oklahoma City.

It's one thing to have a "plain simple cross" with a symbolic message at a fairgrounds, and quite another to have a Ten Commandments monument with direct religious orders at the seat of state government, he wrote.

In a footnote to her concurring opinion, Justice Noma Gurich took issue with the wording of one of the commandments: "Thou shall not covet thy neighbor's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his cattle, nor anything that is thy neighbors."

"The last sentence of this particular version of the Ten Commandments is repugnant to existing laws as women are no longer considered property and slavery was abolished before Oklahoma statehood," Gurich stated.

The opinions

One of the arguments against the Article 2, Section 5, constitutional provision cited by the court, was that this was a so-called Blaine Amendment, contained in many state constitutions as a way to stop state aid to parochial schools.

"The attorney general's historical argument is incorrect," said Justice James Edmondson in a concurring opinion. "The origin of Okla. Const. Art. 2 (section) 5 is with Thomas Jefferson and the example set by the People of Virginia and not the 1876 Blaine Amendment."

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Douglas Combs stated he did not believe the intent or effect of the monument "was for the adoption of sectarian principles." He said it was put up in an out-of-the-way place, not a prominent spot where one might infer the state was supporting religion.

"It appears from the record that the monument was placed in possibly the most inconvenient and low-trafficked part of the Capitol grounds imaginable," he wrote.

The monument, donated by Rep. Mike Ritze, R-Broken Arrow, stands alone about nine feet away from the north side of the Capitol, where there is no working entrance to the building.

The Oklahoma Legislature authorized the monument, and Ritze participated in that vote. Gurich said in a footnote that the state constitution prohibits legislators from voting on measures in which they have a private or personal interest.

Ritze said he received legal advice at the time that he was permitted to vote.

He also said the state Supreme Court's stance on the monument threatens other legal symbols.

"The biggest concern we have is people lining up to sue Oklahoma over all the religious displays on government grounds," he said.

He said the Oklahoma flag, for example, has religious imagery. It includes little crosses and an Indian peace pipe.

What's next?

The state Supreme Court's removal order overturned a district court opinion that the monument could remain. The Supreme Court now will send an order to the lower court telling it to formally order its removal.

Alex Weintz, a spokesman for Gov. Mary Fallin, said the governor's office was awaiting a final order.

"In the meantime, the state is reviewing what legal options are available for preserving the monument," he said.

The attorney general's office has said that since this is a state case, it's not something that would be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. So, it's not clear what legal options remain.

Some state officials have suggested that if the Oklahoma Constitution prohibits such a monument, then the constitution needs to be changed.

But in order for that to happen, voters would have to approve a constitutional amendment. A ballot measure would have to be referred to voters by the Oklahoma Legislature, which isn't scheduled to meet again until next year.

Hiram Sasser, deputy chief counsel of the Liberty Institute, which advocates for freedom of religious expression, criticized the court.

"The Oklahoma Supreme Court has taken the most radical position on removing the Ten Commandments of any court in this nation's history," he said.

Court decisions on Ten Commandment displays have gone both ways.

Some of the displays have been upheld, including one in a group of historical monuments at the Texas state Capitol, and some have been ordered removed, including one on the Haskell County Courthouse lawn.

Some groups have suggested that if the Ten Commandments were allowed to stay at the Oklahoma Capitol, they would pursue their own symbolic monuments. One sect sought permission to place a goat-headed Satan figure outside the building.

Last year, a man ran his car into the Ten Commandments monument, destroying it. His family said he was suffering from mental problems. Ritze replaced it.

(c)2015 The Oklahoman