OKLAHOMA CITY — The Oklahoma Supreme Court on Tuesday said the Ten Commandments monument at the state Capitol must be removed.
The plaintiffs said its placement at the Capitol constituted the use of public property for the benefit of a system of religion, which is banned by the Oklahoma Constitution.
The monument, a gift from Rep. Mike Ritze, R-Broken Arrow, and his family, was recently reinstalled after a man drove a vehicle into it.
Because the monument operates for the use, benefit or support of a sect or system of religion, it violates the Oklahoma Constitution, the five-page opinion said.
The part it violates reads: “No public money or property shall ever be appropriated, applied, donated, or used, directly or indirectly, for the use, benefit, or support of any sect, church, denomination, or system of religion, or for the use, benefit, or support of any priest, preacher, minister, or other religious teacher or dignitary, or sectarian institution as such.”
The vote was 7-2. Concurring were: Chief Justice John F. Reif; Justice Yvonne Kauger; Justice Joseph M. Watt; Justice James R. Winchester; Justice James E. Edmondson; Justice Steve W. Taylor; and Justice Noma D. Gurich. Vice Chief Justice Douglas L. Combs and Justice Tom Colbert dissented.
The suit was brought by the ACLU of Oklahoma on behalf of four plaintiffs, one of whom is now deceased.
“I think that at the end of the day it is the right decision simply because it acknowledges limits on the government’s power to effectively decide what religious edicts are right and wrong,” said Brady Henderson, legal director for the ACLU of Oklahoma.
Bruce Prescott, who is retired and lives in Norman, was a plaintiff.
“I think what the judges realize is when the constitution was framed, the people of Oklahoma were very strong in their affirmation of separation of church and state,” Prescott said. “They did not want government and religion mixed.”
Ritze said he was surprised and disappointed in the ruling because other cases have allowed such displays. He questioned the fate of Native American religious symbols at the Capitol but did not say specifically which symbols. A lot of the monuments and art are considered religious symbols by Native American tribes, Ritze said.
“Gov. Fallin is disappointed with the court’s opinion that a privately funded monument acknowledging the historical importance of the Ten Commandments is not allowed on Capitol grounds,” said Alex Weintz, a Fallin spokesman.
Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt asked the court for a rehearing. In the interim, the order can’t be enforced, Pruitt said, and the opinion contradicts prior rulings of the court.
“Quite simply, the Oklahoma Supreme Court got it wrong,” Pruitt said. “The court completely ignored the profound historical impact of the Ten Commandments on the foundation of Western law.”
If the court is going to construe that section of the constitution in such a manner, it will need to be repealed, Pruitt said. Changes to the Oklahoma Constitution require a vote of the people.
Aaron Cooper, a Pruitt spokesman, said because the issue dealt solely with state law, it was unlikely the U.S. Supreme Court would hear an appeal.
Lucien Greaves is a spokesman and co-founder of the Satanic Temple in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The group sought to erect a monument of Baphomet, a goat-headed humanoid character, next to the Ten Commandments monument. Greaves said with Tuesday’s ruling, his group no longer is pursuing its request. The intent was to reaffirm American plurality and religious liberty, Greaves said.
Following the publication of the opinion, some lawmakers called for judicial reform and the impeachment of the justices who voted to have it removed.
“Our state Supreme Court is playing politics by issuing rulings contrary to the constitution and contrary to the will of the clear majority of Oklahoma voters,” said Rep. Kevin Calvey, R-Oklahoma City. “These Supreme Court justices are nothing more than politicians in black robes, masquerading as objective jurists. This ruling is the court engaging in judicial bullying of the people of Oklahoma, pure and simple.”
He called for changes in how justices are selected.
Last session on the House floor, Calvey said only his Christianity prevented him from setting himself on fire in front of the Judicial Center in protest of opinions that overturned legislation putting restrictions on abortion.
The monument was reinstalled in January after a man in October drove onto the Capitol lawn and struck the monument with his vehicle, shattering it in pieces.
In September, an Oklahoma County judge ruled the monument could stay. The ACLU appealed that decision to the Oklahoma Supreme Court.
The monument was authorized by legislation in 2009 signed by then Gov. Brad Henry. The Capitol Preservation Commission oversaw its placement on the north side of the building in 2012.
Henderson said the ruling does not automatically mean counties with Ten Commandment displays will have to remove them, but it does strengthen the case against them if a legal challenge is filed.
Jan. 9, 2015: Ten Commandments monument reinstalled on Capitol grounds
March 22, 2015: More monuments for Capitol grounds?