Judge Dismisses Atheist Challenge Against Oklahoma Ten Commandments Monument

Oklahoma Capitol Building pdOKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. — A federal judge in Oklahoma has dismissed a lawsuit filed by a prominent atheist organization that sought to challenge the presence of a Ten Commandments monument in the state capital.

American Atheists, based in New Jersey, had filed the legal challenge on behalf of a woman who complained about its installment on the grounds of the Oklahoma capitol building. The State Capitol Preservation Commission argued that the woman had only seen the monument once and had traveled to the area just to see the display and take offense.

On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Robin Cauthron, appointed to the bench by then-President George H.W. Bush, agreed with the commission. It ruled that the woman lacked standing to sue as she had not proven that she suffers personal injury from the display’s presence.

This is not the first time that the monument has been challenged in court. As previously reported, in August 2013, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Oklahoma filed suit against the display, asserting that its erection on the grounds of the state capitol building was unconstitutional.

The lead plaintiff was liberal minister Bruce Prescott, the director of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists. Prescott said that mixing the sacred with the secular in such a manner cheapens the display, and asserted that it violated the Constitution’s Establishment Clause, which says that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…”

In the meantime, a New York-based Satanist group sought to erect an “homage to Satan” near the monument, and other groups chimed in to seek permission to place statues at the location as well.

But last September, Seventh District Court Judge Thomas Prince concluded that the monument served a historical purpose and not solely the presentment of a religious message as it sits on a plot of land that contains 51 other expressive monuments.

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“[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 2009 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 display had been proposed by Rep. Mike Ritze in 2009, and was soon after approved by the largely Republican-run state legislature. Ritze paid over $1000 for the display, and no taxpayer funds were utilized in its creation.

American Atheists says that it is disheartened that Cauthron dismissed its suit for a lack of standing.

“We’re surprised and disappointed by this,” Communications Director Danielle Muscato told reporters. “Oklahoma is breaking the law and cannot hide behind standing. This monument remains unconstitutional and we intend to refile.”

But State Attorney General Scott Pruitt issued a statement expressing his satisfaction with the outcome.

“The historical relevance of the Ten Commandments and the role it played in the founding of our nation cannot be disputed,” he said. “I commend Judge Cauthron’s decision to rule in the state’s favor.”


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