Okla. Commandments Display Sends Message Of Exclusion

Americans United waded into an Oklahoma dispute over a government-sponsored Ten Commandments display recently, advising a federal appeals court that Religious Right organizations are using the Decalogue to project a message of religious exclusion and intolerance.

In a friend-of-the-court brief filed with the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Americans United attorneys trace the Religious Right’s use of the Commandments and explain how the symbol has been appropriated to wage war against religious diversity.

Observed Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director, “The Religious Right is using a sacred religious symbol as a weapon in the culture war. It’s demeaning to religion, deeply divisive in a diverse nation and clearly unconstitutional.”

AU argues that officials in Haskell County, Okla., violated the constitutional separation of church and state by erecting a Commandments monument in front of the county courthouse in November of 2004. A federal district court upheld the display, and the case is now on appeal.

The Commandments are rooted in the Old Testament, but, as AU points out, they have become a flashpoint for activism by Christian fundamentalist political groups in recent years. AU asserts that the Decalogue’s display on public property in recent times is often part of a Religious Right-led crusade to assert Christian dominance.

“Against this historical backdrop, contemporary displays of the Ten Commandments convey to the public a different message than displays erected 50, 40, 30, or even 20 years ago,” asserts Americans United in the legal document. “After a decade-long campaign to reclaim America from religious heterogeneity, the Christian Right has transformed the Commandments into a potent symbol of Christian supremacy – and ergo, a symbol of the inferior status of non-Christians in the political and legal spheres.”

The brief discusses several high-profile legal and political battles over the  Commandments, including former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore’s losing crusade to display a 2.5-ton Commandments monument at the state judicial building in Montgomery.

Moore’s action, Americans United asserts, was no mere recognition of the Commandments’ influence on the law. Rather, it was “intended to affirm the truth of the belief that divine law supersedes civil law, by conveying a message to the public that Christianity and Christian law (in the form of the Decalogue) reigns supreme – not just over the American legal system, but also over all other religions.”

The AU brief in Green v. Board of County Commissioners of the County of Haskell points out that the display has increased community rancor. A county commissioner hung up on one woman who called to complain, saying he does not speak to non-Christians. At a pro-Commandments rally, a local pastor implied that foes of the display would be lynched if they dared speak out.

The Americans United brief, filed Jan. 30, was prepared by AU Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan, AU Assistant Legal Director Richard B. Katskee and AU attorney Heather L. Weaver.