OKLAHOMA CITY – A Baptist minister is the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) that seeks to have a Ten Commandments monument removed from the premises of the state Capitol building in Oklahoma.
The monument at issue was proposed and paid for in 2009 by Republican Representative Mike Ritze, and was soon after approved by the largely Republican-run state legislature.
“[T]he Ten Commandments are an important component of the foundation of the laws and legal system of the United States of America and of the State of Oklahoma,” the bill authorizing the monument acknowledged. “[T]he courts of the United States of America and of various states frequently cite the Ten Commandments in published decisions, and acknowledgements of the role played by the Ten Commandments in our nation’s heritage are common throughout America.”
The six-foot display was erected last year, but the ACLU says the monument is unconstitutional.
“The monument’s placement at the Capitol has created a more divisive and hostile state for many Oklahomans,” stated Ryan Kiesel, the executive director of ACLU of Oklahoma, in a news release announcing the suit. “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.”
The ACLU asserts that the constitution forbids using state property to endorse particular religions or denominations.
“On fundamental matters of faith, the state has no business telling its citizens what to believe,” Daniel Mach, director of the national ACLU’s Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, contended. “No one should be made to feel unwelcome at their own state Capitol.”
The lead plaintiff in the lawsuit is minister Bruce Prescott, the director of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists. Prescott says that mixing the sacred with the secular in such a manner cheapens the display.
“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,” he stated.
Prescott contacted the ACLU last year to complain about the monument, which eventually led to the filing of the lawsuit.
“That monument is an affront to every person who affirms that the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment prohibits the government from establishing religion,” he wrote in a letter to the organization. “I am not opposed to monuments of the Ten Commandments that are placed on private property and/or on the grounds of religious institutions. I am opposed to erecting Ten Commandments monuments on public property and particularly on the grounds of the state Capitol where people of different faiths and of no faith go to exercise their rights as citizens.”
Prescott, who also worked with the Oklahoma Center for Reproductive Justice to oppose the Personhood Amendment in the state, claims that Baptists of the revolutionary era were “adamant in denying support for the Constitution until it separated church and state and protected the equal rights of citizenship for all religious minorities,” and that he must subsequently do the same.
However, the Liberty Institute, a Christian legal organization in Plano, Texas, has stepped up to defend the Ten Commandments monument and work alongside Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to ensure a victory in the legal battle.
“We believe Attorney General Pruitt and his top notch legal team will do an outstanding job defending the State of Oklahoma and leading on this case and Liberty Institute looks forward to assisting them in this matter,” Hiram Sasser, Director of Litigation, stated in a recent news release about the matter.
The Liberty Institute says that the ACLU has become synonymous with lawsuits challenging religious displays on public property, and is therefore not surprised about the legal challenge.
“The ACLU and others have made it their mission to eliminate any trace of religion from public view,” the organization remarked. “Legislative prayer, city-sponsored senior wellness centers, … sacred veterans memorials–nothing and no one is safe from their attacks. However, Liberty Institute is fighting back.”
The case is called Prescott v. Oklahoma, bearing the name of the Baptist minister who objects to the monument’s presence on the Capitol grounds.