By Bob Allen
A Baptist minister suing for removal of a Ten Commandments monument at the Oklahoma state capitol won’t get his day in court, a district judge said Sept. 19.
Bruce Prescott, former executive director of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists and a member of NorthHaven Church in Norman, Okla., joined three other taxpayers in a lawsuit last year claiming a privately funded 6-foot-tall granite monument authorized by the legislature in 2009 and placed on the capitol grounds in 2012 violated the state constitution’s ban against using public property to support “any sect, church, denomination or system of religion.”
District Court Judge Thomas Prince of Tulsa County, Okla., disagreed, however, finding the monument serves a “secular” purpose recognizing the Ten Commandments’ place in American history and thereby is not an unconstitutional establishment of religion.
Two of the plaintiffs claimed posting religious teachings on public property constituted endorsement of a religion other than their own. The other two — Prescott and Jim Huff, a member at First Baptist Church in Oklahoma City — said the Ten Commandments are part of their faith tradition, and they object to their beliefs being exploited for political reasons.
Rep. Mike Ritze, a Southern Baptist and member of the Oklahoma legislature, introduced legislation in 2009 authorizing a Ten Commandments monument modeled after one in Texas which was found constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision in 2005. The Ritze family donated $10,000 to fund the granite monument, originally erected with spelling errors.
Represented by the ACLU of Oklahoma, Prescott and the other plaintiffs argued unsuccessfully that the Texas and Oklahoma monuments are not the same. They compared the one in Oklahoma to framed displays at courthouses and schools in three Kentucky counties that the Supreme Court found unconstitutional in another 5-4 ruling, because their purpose was to advance religion.
Lawyers for the ACLU said they will appeal.
“The plaintiffs in this case do not seek the removal of the Ten Commandments monument from the state capitol lawn because they find the text of the monument offensive, but rather because, like many Oklahomans, the Ten Commandments constitute a core part of their sincerely held religious beliefs and it is offensive to them that this sacred document has been hijacked by politicians,” said Brady Henderson, legal director for ACLU of Oklahoma.
Ryan Kiesel, executive director of the ACLU of Oklahoma, said from the outset plaintiffs knew the case would ultimately be decided by the Oklahoma Supreme Court, and Friday’s decision “places us one step closer to a resolution.”