Thursday, May 28, 2009

More to monument than meets the eye

The Edmond Sun, May 28, 2009

EDMOND — Well, here we go again. The Republican-controlled Oklahoma Legislature, knowing what’s best for us, has approved the installation of the Ten Commandments on the State Capitol grounds and persuaded Gov. Brad Henry to silently approve it.

Republican Rep. Mike Ritze of Broken Arrow has pushed this idea since discovering that Oklahoma was not displaying the Decalogue like Texas does. He took it upon himself to right this wrong, even going so far as to pay for it himself so no tax dollars would be used.

First, a little background. A group called the Fraternal Order of Eagles had been distributing paper copies of the King James Version of the Ten Commandments since 1951 as part of a program to fight juvenile delinquency. Apparently Cecil B. DeMille, who directed the movie “The Ten Commandments,” decided to have their artwork carved in stone and donate them to communities around the country. The project turned into a promotion for the movie, as actors from the movie appeared at dedications of some of the markers, and FOE members were encouraged to sell tickets to the movie.

At least 145 of the markers were erected in 34 states and Canada between 1955 and 1985. Many remain, including one at the Texas State Capitol. After four decades, a Texas lawyer challenged its presence on public land.

On June 27, 2005, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in favor of the Texas monument and 5-4 against a related Kentucky display, with Justice Stephen Breyer changing his vote. Understanding the subtle distinction between the two cases may help explain why an Oklahoma monument is on shaky constitutional footing.

In the Kentucky case, county officials posted copies of the Ten Commandments in two county courthouses. After being challenged, they twice added other religious documents, and defiantly passed resolutions affirming the importance of the Ten Commandments to Kentuckians.

To favor one faith over another, or adherence to religion generally, clashes with society’s demand for “tolerance that respects the religious views of all citizens,” the Court wrote in declaring the display unconstitutional. By showing a purpose to favor religion, the government “sends the... message to... nonadherents ‘that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members....’”

In contrast, the Texas FOE marker stood for four decades with 17 secular monuments and 21 historical markers on 22 acres around the Capitol building commemorating the “people, ideals, and events that compose Texan identity.”

Rep. Ritze says his display will be constitutional because the same display approved in Texas. Not so fast. If the purpose is to promote religion, it’s unconstitutional. If the purpose is historical or secular, part of a broader educational context, it may pass muster. Where are the other secular monuments to the rule of law in Oklahoma? What about the Iroquois Confederacy that gave us three branches of government? Where is the educational nature? What of the long-standing acquiescence by the community, or the FOE involvement?

The 2005 cases did not reference their state constitutions, but in Oklahoma our Constitution may pose a problem. Article II Section 5 is pretty clear: “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.”

Ritze says his monument will quote the King James Version of the Bible, because that 1611 translation was used on the Texas marker approved by the Supreme Court. Will it be limited to the commandments set forth in Exodus 20, or will it include the laws in chapters 21 through 23 that were written by God’s finger on the stone tablets? Or will it be the summary in chapter 34 after Moses broke the first pair of tablets? If the purpose is to educate, why leave out the synopsis at Deuteronomy 5:6-21, or Christ’s new covenant recorded in Matthew? Should we prefer the Catholic, Lutheran, Jewish, Evangelical or Methodist version, or even Islam’s ten moral stipulations in the Qur’an? Wars have been fought and churches have split over lesser issues; now one politician, not even ordained, will make that decision for all of us.

James Madison wrote, “The Religion of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate.” Maybe that’s the message we should carve in stone at the state Capitol.