Appeals Court Strikes Down Oklahoma County’s Ten Commandments Display

The display of a Ten Commandments monument at the Haskell County, Okla., courthouse is unconstitutional, a federal appeals court has ruled.

Reversing a lower court, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously declared unconstitutional the eight-foot-tall religious display, which was erected at the courthouse in 2004 after a campaign by a local minister and his supporters.

Americans United, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the Green v. Haskell County Board of Commissioners case, noted that the monument displays the Protestant version of the Commandments and was erected at the behest of part-time minister Michael Bush.

The appeals court traced the history of the monument, noting that commissioners frequently invoked religious language in defending it. One commissioner said, “I’m a Christian, and I believe in this. I think it’s a benefit to the community.”

The appellate panel, composed of three George W. Bush appointees, ruled that most people would perceive the display of the monument and the battle to keep it up as religious efforts.

“We conclude, in the unique factual setting of a small community like Haskell County, that the reasonable observer would find that these facts tended to strongly reflect a government endorsement of religion,” wrote the court. “In particular, we find support for this conclusion in the public statements of the Haskell County commissioners.”

In 2005, the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma filed suit against the monument, representing James W. Green, a county resident.

Reacting to the ruling, Haskell County Commissioner Mitch Worsham told the Associated Press, “Whoever was the judge in this, I feel sorry for him on Judgment Day. We’re not going to take it down.”

Worsham said the county, which was represented by the Alliance Defense Fund, a Religious Right legal group, is considering an appeal.

Americans United hailed the ruling.

“This decision should send a clear message to politicians and religious leaders: Thou shalt not mix church and state,” observed Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “Our courthouses should focus on the Constitution and civil law, not religious law.”

Lynn noted that Oklahoma legislators in May passed a law calling for a Commandments display on the grounds of the state capitol. Americans United, the ACLU and mainstream Baptist organizations opposed that move and say the ruling in the Haskell County case strengthens their argument.