Tuesday, July 7, 2015
In 2009, Governor Brad Henry signed a bill allowing the installation of a small, privately funded Ten Commandments monument outside the Oklahoma State Capitol. Legislators and supporters of the monument intended it as a tribute to the importance of the Ten Commandments in our history and our system of laws.
Celebrating the historical importance of religions and religious values is not a new idea. Our nation is steeped in references to God and the rights He bestows on all men and women.
The Declaration of Independence clearly states the rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” are inalienable and bestowed on all, not by the government or by men, but by our “Creator.” Our currency has the motto “In God We Trust” printed on every bill. The United States Supreme Court building is decorated with a carving of Moses carrying the Ten Commandments.
In Oklahoma, there is a Christmas Tree lighting celebration on the Capitol steps every year. I host a Chanukah menorah lighting ceremony in the Capitol. There are many works of art on Capitol and state property that include symbols of Native American religion, as well as tribal culture and history.
None of these represent state endorsement of or support for any religion. They are celebrations or visual representations of our culture and events of historical importance.
Nevertheless, our state Supreme Court ruled last week that the Oklahoma Constitution prohibits the placement of a Ten Commandments monument on Capitol grounds. Such a monument, they ruled, amounts to state support of a religious denomination, which is prohibited by the State Constitution.
At its most basic, the court’s opinion amounts to this: any depiction of religion or religiously inspired text or imagery is illegal. It does not matter if that imagery or text is serving a historical purpose; it is, according to our court, not allowed on state-owned property.
For many legislators and many Oklahomans, hundreds of whom have called my office in the last several days, this outlook from our court is deeply disturbing. Our public lands host monuments and exhibits to celebrate our tribal history and culture, to recognize the historical importance of the energy industry, and to remember the veterans of multiple foreign wars. However, the court has ordered religion, specifically Judeo-Christian values, to be scrubbed from our collective history.
I believe the court got it wrong. Nevertheless, Oklahoma is a state where we respect the rule of law, and we cannot ignore judicial rulings. We are, however, also a state with three co-equal branches of government. At this time, Attorney General Scott Pruitt, with my support, has filed a petition requesting a rehearing of the Ten Commandments case. Additionally, our Legislature has signaled its support for pursuing changes to our state Constitution that would ensure the Ten Commandments monument is legally permissible. If their efforts are successful, the people of Oklahoma will get to vote on the issue.
During this process, which will involve both legal appeals and potential legislative and constitutional changes, the Ten Commandments monument will remain on the Capitol grounds. It is my hope we will reach a long-term resolution that ensures it remains indefinitely as a tribute to Oklahoma values, culture and history.