Atheists File Federal Lawsuit Against Oklahoma Officials for Allowing Ten Commandments Monument on Capitol Grounds

Oklahoma officials decided to put a Ten Commandments monument on Capitol grounds in 2012 and the decision has been coming back to bite them ever since.

The Ten Commandments monument outside the Oklahoma State Capitol building (AP)

Last month, the Satanic Temple made worldwide headlines when it requested its own monument on the property:

A Hindu group made a similar request.

And then, the week before Christmas, the Oklahoma Capitol Preservation Commission in charge of giving the green lights to monuments, declared a moratorium on all monuments.

Their reason was that they were still dealing with the ACLU’s challenge to the original Ten Commandments monument and until they could figure out if that one was legal, they couldn’t really approve or deny any additional ones.

That lawsuit concerned the fact that the monument violated the Oklahoma state constitution which says that taxpayer money cannot be used, directly or indirectly, to endorse religion.

But what about the U.S. Constitution? The monument violates the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause as well as the Fourteenth Amendment’s right to equal protection, and that’s why American Atheists, today, filed a federal lawsuit against Oklahoma state officials:

“I want to be clear about this: We have a religious monument, placed on government property, by government mandate,” said American Atheists President David Silverman. “That is an explicit violation of First Amendment protections of separation of religion and government. As though that isn’t going far enough, Oklahoma lawmakers have passed a law requiring that the monument endorse one specific religion, a clear violation of Fourteenth Amendment equal protection. There is now a law, on the books of Oklahoma, respecting the establishment of Christianity, which is grossly unconstitutional. The legislature has broken the law, plain and simple, and we are suing to right this wrong.

AA’s lawsuit specifically calls out state officials for passing a law “to permit and arrange for the placement on the State Capitol grounds of a suitable monument displaying the Ten Commandments.”

But here’s my favorite part: It also lists, one by one, how most of the Commandments go against the U.S. and Oklahoma Constitutions:

49. The first commandment, if it were part of Oklahoma law, would be unconstitutional, because it would establish, at a minimum, Jewish and Christian monotheism as the law of the land. The very bedrock of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause is that the United States does not permit the establishment of a religion, the preference of religion over nonreligion, or the preference of one religion (or a subset of religions) over others.

50. The second commandment listed prohibits the making of “graven images.” However, if this commandment were part of Oklahoma law, it would fail as a violation of citizens’ free speech and expression rights protected under the United States and Oklahoma Constitutions. From the foundation of the United States, the making of graven images has been part and parcel of being an American, honoring our Founding Fathers, and honoring the United States.

51. The Ten Commandments Display may also be regarded itself as a “graven image” due to the imagery carved upon it along with the text. Works of art depicted in and around the Capitol building commonly depict various “graven images.”

52. The third commandment, as with the second, would be a violation of the United States and Oklahoma Constitutions. A prohibition of taking a name in vain, even of one subset of religion’s “Lord,” would in most cases be a violation of every citizen’s right to free speech and expression.

53. The fourth commandment is essentially a religious test, which would require citizens to remember a particular Sabbath Day and “keep it holy.” Originally, the Sabbath was Saturday. Christians generally have changed it to Sunday, although some Christian denominations consider Saturday the Sabbath. In any case, requiring citizens to engage in a religious practice is inconsistent with the First Amendment’s protection under the Establishment Clause. It would constitute both an establishment of religion, and also a clear restriction on citizens’ free exercise rights. The injunction that citizens must “remember” a Sabbath Day is, also, an invasion of their minds, which if enacted into law would reach the hand of government into the very thoughts of citizens.

54. The fifth commandment requires persons to honor their fathers and mothers without qualification or condition, and implies that failure to do so will result in a person’s shortened longevity. (“Honor thy father and thy mother that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.”) If enacted into law, the fifth commandment would not pass constitutional muster under the First Amendment.

55. The sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth commandments are all commonly understood “wrongs.” Unjustified killing, unconsented adultery, stealing, and lying as a witness, are all commonly understood wrongs for which the law to one degree or another imposes a sanction. These are the only four commandments listed which bear any relation to lawful action by state or federal authorities relative to persons within their jurisdictions.

56. The last commandment listed on the Display imposes another invasion into the human mind. It effectively creates a “thought crime,” wherein the citizenry is enjoined not to “covet” certain items. The items listed include people such as one’s “wife” and “servant” as among “things” like homes and cattle that are possessed by people. Absent is a reference to thy neighbor’s “husband.” If this were part of Oklahoma law, it arguably would fail on Equal Protection grounds, unless torturously interpreted differently than its plain meaning.

As usual, the part that’ll make everyone’s eyes roll involves the atheist plaintiffs’ “suffering,” as if they’re really undergoing any undue hardship…

This endorsement, and its converse coercive effect on those with faith traditions inconsistent with those supported by the Display, force Plaintiffs to endure a continuing violation of the peoples’ liberty of conscience, committed in their names as citizens of Oklahoma.

… Plaintiffs object to the use and display of the Display due its co-option of their religious traditions, resulting in a cheapening and degradation of their shared faith. Plaintiffs conduct ongoing activity at the State Capitol and/or plan to do so in the future so as to face direct confrontation and challenge from the Display’s message. Plaintiff [William] Poire simply avoids the State Capitol.

I don’t know how seriously a court will take those complaints, but on principle, AA appears to be in the right. The state allowed the Ten Commandments monument on government property in a way they didn’t do — and likely wouldn’t do — for any other group. They went out of their way to accommodate Christians. All people, regardless of religious beliefs, should be playing by the same rules but that’s not what happened here. For that reason alone, AA’s complaint carries weight with me, as does the ACLU’s.

The smart thing for state officials to do would be to just remove the Ten Commandments monument. If they did that, they could say no without reservation to the Satanists, Hindus, and every other group that’ll want to pay for a monument to be erected. If they leave the monument up, Oklahoma taxpayers will be on the hook for the state’s legal fees.

“I want to be clear about this: We have a religious monument, placed on government property, by government mandate,” said American Atheists President David Silverman. “That is an explicit violation of First Amendment protections of separation of religion and government. As though that isn’t going far enough, Oklahoma lawmakers have passed a law requiring that the monument endorse one specific religion, a clear violation of Fourteenth Amendment equal protection. There is now a law, on the books of Oklahoma, respecting the establishment of Christianity, which is grossly unconstitutional. The legislature has broken the law, plain and simple, and we are suing to right this wrong.


About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.


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