Legislature again tries to display Ten Commandments on public grounds

Rep. John Bennett

OKLAHOMA CITY — After two failed tries, Oklahoma lawmakers think they’ve finally found the way to legally display Ten Commandment monuments on public grounds.

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin recently signed a measure that classifies the Ten Commandments — along with the “Magna Carta,” “Declaration of Independence,” “U.S. Constitution” and “Bill of Rights” — as “historical documents” that “commemorate freedom, the rule of law and the rich history of Oklahoma.”

All those “should be displayed proudly and resolutely” in public buildings and on public land, according to the measure authored by state Rep. John Bennett, R-Sallisaw.

Bennett said the Ten Commandments have been on display in the United States since the country’s founding. Displaying them does not advocate for religion, he said.

“Should we not teach our children in school that they should not kill, steal or lie? Should it be against the law to teach them to obey their father and mother?” Bennett said in a statement. “The fact that some may not agree with all of the commandments does not mean they shouldn’t be displayed, any more than the fact that not everyone agrees with all of the protections granted by the Bill of Rights, yet that does not prohibit its display.”

Allie Shinn, director of external affairs at the Oklahoma chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said her organization doesn’t oppose the classification as historical but will continue to oppose any efforts to display the Ten Commandments on public property.

“This is just the latest in a series of misguided attempts to get the Ten Commandments on public property, and it’s just not going to work,” she said. “I think they’re looking for a legally permissible way to enshrine a very narrow interpretation of one single faith above all others and above no religious faith at all.”

In 2015, Shinn’s organization won a decisive legal victory that forced the state to remove its large, granite monument that had been installed on Capitol grounds. The state’s Supreme Court ruled that it violated the state Constitution, which prohibits using public funds and grounds to promote a singular faith. The controversial monument was ultimately relocated to a private, conservative think tank.

Stinging from the court’s decision, lawmakers then tried to throw out the same piece of the state Constitution cited by the court as requiring the monument’s removal.

In 2016, voters resoundingly defeated that plan — and the push to restore the Ten Commandments to the Capitol.

Shinn’s group also successfully sued over a similar monument erected on the Haskell County Courthouse lawn.

“They should really at this point give it up,” Shinn said of the Legislature. “It’s a monumental waste of everybody’s time.”

In a statement, Fallin said the Ten Commandments are historically significant.

“It doesn’t order their display,” Fallin said. “Displaying the Ten Commandments on public property celebrates the historical values that have helped shape our legal system. It is not a state endorsement of any religion, and it certainly does not threaten anyone’s rights to worship as they choose or not to worship at all.”

Shelley Zumwalt, a spokeswoman for the state’s Office of Management and Enterprise Services, said no requests have been made to resurrect the monument at the Capitol.

Shinn said she hopes the public is tiring of the considerable time the Legislature is spending on the issue when there are ongoing education, infrastructure and healthcare crises.

But if the state places another Ten Commandments monument on Capitol grounds, Shinn said the ACLU will do whatever it takes — including suing again — to ensure that church and state remain legally separate entities.

“What they’re really trying to do is usurp the law. No matter how they try, they’re just not going to be able to get around the First Amendment,” she said.

Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach her at jstecklein@cnhi.com.