OKLAHOMA CITY — A 6-foot tall granite monument inscribed with the Ten Commandments was installed Thursday on the state Capitol grounds, drawing a harsh reaction from opponents and a legal scholar who question whether the display is constitutional.
The Republican-controlled Legislature authorized the privately funded monument in 2009, and former Democratic Gov. Brad Henry signed the bill into law.
The bill’s author, Rep. Mike Ritze, and his family paid about $10,000 for the monument’s construction.
“I think it’s a beautiful work of art, and it’s identical to ones in Texas, Utah and 200 other monuments that have been in place for years,” said Ritze, R-Broken Arrow.
A private contractor put the monument in place Thursday morning on the north side of the Capitol building, near an entrance that has been closed for years.
Three years ago, the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled a similar Ten Commandments monument erected on the Haskell County Courthouse lawn in Stigler was unconstitutional, but the U.S. Supreme Court has authorized a similar monument at the Texas Capitol.
But Joseph Thai, a constitutional law professor at the University of Oklahoma, said the Supreme Court “grandfathered” in the Texas monument because it had been in place for decades and was surrounded by other monuments that he said helped secularize its religious message.
“The new and naked monument here is more likely to prove divisive and give the impression of state endorsement of religion — the very reasons the Ten Commandments display in Haskell County was struck down in court a few years ago,” Thai wrote in an email to The Associated Press.
“It hardly seems wise or fiscally responsible to thrust the state into expensive and unnecessary litigation over a religious wedge issue.”
Ryan Kiesel, the executive director of the Oklahoma chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said no decision has been made about whether to file a lawsuit, although he also questioned the monument’s constitutionality.
“The state Capitol is the seat of government in Oklahoma,” Kiesel said. “It ought to be a welcoming environment for people of all faiths and no faith at all. And when legislators put a monument that seems to put one faith above others, they’re creating an environment where people of Oklahoma visiting the state Capitol could very well feel that they’re second-class citizens.”
Ritze said the monument was put in place to celebrate the historical nature of the Ten Commandments and not the religious message.
“We never talked about it as a religious symbol or monument,” Ritze said. “It was strictly historical — where we get our laws that are common throughout the heritage of our nation and our state.”
But Kiesel, previously a Democratic lawmaker who opposed the legislation in 2009, said that argument is disingenuous.
“The Ten Commandments is a deeply religious and spiritual symbol, and frankly I think that the people of Oklahoma that include the Ten Commandments in their worship should be offended that these individuals would seek to discount the Ten Commandments as some secular historical symbol,” Kiesel said.