More than three millennia after Moses received the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai on the other side of the world, God’s Top Ten is back in the news here in Oklahoma.
You have probably heard about the lawsuit filed last week to remove the Ten Commandments monument from the Oklahoma State Capitol grounds. The suit was filed on Monday in Oklahoma County District Court by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of four plaintiffs.
These fusses over Ten Commandment monuments have been going on for years and have become quite a cottage industry. The lawsuits and all the public interest they generate give politicians and political groups, churches and religious nonprofits, civil rights groups and the ACLU, and, of course, the media, all a chance to weigh in.
One of the more famous Ten Commandments squabbles involved Judge Roy Moore, who was Supreme Court Justice in Alabama. In 2003, Moore refused to remove a Ten Commandments monument from the state courthouse, even after a federal judge ordered it removed. That one resulted in Moore being removed from office and the monument being removed from the building. However, Moore was re-installed as chief justice earlier this year.
One of the cases most relevant to the Oklahoma lawsuit is Van Orden v. Perry, which played out in Texas about a decade ago. The story began back in 1961, when the Fraternal Order of Eagles donated a Ten Commandments monument to the state, and the Texas legislature voted to accept it. Fast forward 40 years. Van Orden, a law school graduate who did frequent research at the state law library at the Capitol, and who described himself as an atheist, filed a suit in 2001 to have the monument removed. The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which decided in 2005 by a 5-4 vote that the monument did not violate the First Amendment.
Interestingly, two of the four plaintiffs in this week’s Oklahoma lawsuit describe themselves as Baptists. Bruce Prescott says he is an ordained Baptist minister and the director of a nonprofit called Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists. Jim Huff says is a member of First Baptist Church of Oklahoma City and, like Prescott, a member of the Oklahoma chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
Their lawsuit claims that the monument violates the First Amendment separation of church and state by endorsing certain religions, Judaism and Christianity, while derogating other religions. The ACLU’s Oklahoma director, Ryan Kiesel, was quoted as saying: “When the government literally puts one faith on a pedestal, it sends a strong message to Oklahomans of other faiths that they are less than equal.”
I’m not going to offer an opinion on this one, other than just: Leave it there! According to the Tulsa World, that monument at the State Capitol is very popular, supported by 80 percent of Oklahoma voters. To speak in favor of it would just sound like grandstanding (not that that’s stopping anyone else) and to speak against it would just be foolish.
I will, however, offer a few facts and observations for both sides to consider:
• The monument, located on the north side of the Capitol grounds, was approved by the Oklahoma Legislature in 2009 and put into place in 2012.
• No state dollars were spent to create the monument. It was donated by Broken Arrow state representative Mike Ritze, a Republican. It costs him $10,000, a publicity investment that keeps on paying, as it is this month.
• Surely everyone on both sides agrees, for better or worse, that the monument does directly challenge other religions. After all, the first commandment on the list is to have no other gods.
• The monument is almost an exact duplicate of the one installed in Texas 52 years ago. See for yourself, in these side-by-side photos.
• Both monuments not only contain the commandments but some other symbols. At the top, an American eagle with a U.S. flag. At the bottom, a Star of David, a symbol of Judaism, and a “Chi Rho,” the first two letters of the Greek word for Christ.
• One embarrassing difference between the two monuments is that the word “Sabbath” is misspelled on the Oklahoma version.