Backward Step for Church and State Separation: GOP’s Oklahoma Ten Commandments Plan

Oklahoma State Senator David Bullard (R) has introduced Senate Bill 1858, which aims to establish a Ten Commandments monument at the state capitol. This proposal blatantly disregards a past state Supreme Court ruling that deemed a similar monument unconstitutional seven years ago.

The bill’s specifics are strikingly bold. Not only does it propose the erection of a monument that promotes Judeo-Christian principles in a prominent public space, both inside and outside the Oklahoma Capitol, but it also establishes stringent rules for its permanence. According to the bill, once erected, the monument can only be moved or altered with a hefty three-quarters legislative vote and the governor’s approval.

The bill’s timeline is equally ambitious, requiring a design within one year of its passage. Additionally, it threatens a felony charge to anyone who dares to damage the monument and empowers the state attorney general to defend its constitutionality if challenged.

This move directly contravenes the First Amendment, which prohibits government endorsement of a state religion. The Oklahoma Supreme Court’s 2015 decision, which led to the removal of a previous Ten Commandments display, is a testament to this constitutional safeguard. The response to the earlier display’s presence, including the Satanic Temple’s proposal of a Baphomet statue, highlighted the inherent contradiction in promoting a single religious viewpoint on state property.

Despite the bill’s stipulation that only donated funds will be used for the monument’s construction, a significant amount of government resources, including lawmakers’ time, would inevitably be involved in its planning. This indirect use of state resources further blurs the lines between church and state.

Senator Bullard appears to be banking on the 2022 Supreme Court ruling favoring a public school football coach’s right to lead prayers, to bolster his bill’s chances. However, critics, including Veronica Laizure from the ACLU-Oklahoma and CAIR, rightfully argue that the use of public grounds and money for promoting a single religious viewpoint is constitutionally untenable.

Senate Bill 1858, if passed, would be a regressive move against the separation of church and state, a fundamental principle that protects religious freedom for all. It raises serious concerns about the prioritization of a specific religious ideology in public spaces, potentially alienating those who adhere to different beliefs or none at all. The proposal not only overlooks past legal precedents but also disregards the diverse and pluralistic nature of modern society.