Oklahoma voters in November will face a radical ballot initiative that could, if passed, alter the state’s constitution to allow taxpayer money to flow directly into the coffers of sectarian institutions.
Last week, Oklahoma lawmakers approved SJR 72, which has been advertised as an amendment that would allow government-sponsored religious displays on public land. But the change might do much more than that if it is approved by voters this fall.
The measure, backed in the state House of Representatives by Rep. John Paul Jordan (R-Yukon), came about in response to a much-publicized court case in which the Oklahoma Supreme Court struck down a Ten Commandments monument on the grounds of the state capitol in Oklahoma City.
Last year in a 7-2 ruling, Oklahoma’s high court said that the Commandments are “obviously” a religious text, and the Oklahoma Constitution expressly prohibits the use of public property to support a particular religion.
The suit was brought by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of multiple plaintiffs, including Dr. Bruce Prescott, a Southern Baptist minister and former member of Americans United’s Board of Trustees, and Jim Huff, who led AU’s Oklahoma City Chapter for many years. (Huff is also a deacon and a Sunday school teacher at his Baptist church.)
The six-foot granite monument, which had been in place since 2012, was previously upheld by a lower state court. In 2014, state District Judge Thomas Prince found that because the monument is privately funded, its display does not violate the First Amendment. A state representative, Mike Ritze (R-Broken Arrow), provided nearly $10,000 to fund the monument.
Supporters of the monument had argued that the Decalogue belongs on the statehouse grounds because, they insist, the Ten Commandments influenced American law. (There is no evidence it did.) They asserted that the Ten Commandments are more of a “historical document” than a religious one. They also argued that the display is similar to one at the capitol in Austin, Texas, that the U.S. Supreme Court upheld in 2005.
The Oklahoma Supreme Court, however, rejected that idea, stating that its decision “rests solely on the Oklahoma constitution with no regard for federal jurisprudence.”
Plenty of state lawmakers, including Gov. Mary Fallin (R), were very unhappy with the ruling. So now they’re trying to get the state constitution changed – supposedly so they can put the monument back up.
“This is a battle that belongs to the great people of Oklahoma,” Jordan said in a press statement. “It's up to them to determine what they want.” But if passed, the constitutional amendment could do so much more than simply allow a Ten Commandments display on government property. The initiative would remove Article 2, Section 5 of the Oklahoma Constitution. That provision 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 language provides for a strong degree of protection, ensuring that the people of Oklahoma won’t be compelled to directly support any religion against their will. Without it, there may be nothing in the state constitution to stop sectarian groups from demanding access to the taxpayer purse.
This isn’t just about a Ten Commandments display. Removing the provision of the state constitution that bars direct taxpayer funding of religion is bound to have consequences way beyond that issue.
Let’s hope that in November, a majority of Oklahomans see this ploy for what it really is – an attempted takedown of the wall that should exist between church and state.
Stay tuned, folks. Nothing less than the future of religious freedom in Oklahoma is at stake.