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The worst question of all

SQ 790, a monumental disaster

As ghoulish as is State Question 776—the proposed amendment which empowers the state legislature to designate any method of execution not prohibited by the United States Constitution—and as horrendous as is State Question 777, the so-called Right to Farm Bill, neither embodies the awful quite like State Question 790. 

This measure would remove Article 2, Section 5 of the Oklahoma Constitution, which prohibits the government from using public money or property for the direct or indirect benefit of any religion or religious institution. 

And what could go wrong there?

The only reason SQ 790 is on the ballot at all is because supporters of a Ten Commandments monument behaved like 9-year-olds who had their iPads taken away when the Oklahoma Supreme Court said the structure violated the constitution and had to be removed.

The Ten Commandments monument in this case does explicitly “display” and “articulate” ideas that directly pertain to the Judeo-Christian system of religion. 

But Mom!!!!!! 

“If this is the Court’s opinion, [Senator Mike] Ritze said, “it threatens all displays on state property that contain religious imagery.”

Since I trust Ritze, who paid for the monument, as far as I can throw a 4800-pound piece of granite, I contacted friend of the column Garrett Epps, an American legal scholar, professor of law at the University of Baltimore and contributing editor for The Atlantic, who reminds us the Oklahoma Statute in question, Article 2, Section 5, is based on something called “a little Blaine Amendment,” an offshoot of legislation proposed in 1875 in the U.S. House of Representatives, designed to keep religious funds from flowing to Catholic schools. 

The bill was never ratified, but many states, including Oklahoma, subsequently based their church/state prohibitions on Blaine’s provisions. Specifically, Epps says that Ten Commandment exhibits throughout the country—at least those already in place—do not violate the Establishment Clause of the Constitution when they are considered historical acknowledgement rather than religious shrines.

“Already in place” appears to be key.

Ritze’s statue has no real history—it was erected in 2009—unlike a similar monument in Texas, erected in 1961, that was ruled constitutional in part because of the shameless marketing of Cecil B. DeMille.

DeMille actually helped establish the battleground. He played a role in getting the granite replica of the Commandments placed outside the Texas Capitol. He skillfully avoided footing the bill for the tablets, leaving that to the Fraternal Order of Eagles. DeMille’s Ten Commandments premiered in 1956. Learning of the Eagles’ work—and keen to promote his film with their cause—the director encouraged the group to donate carved stone tablets like those that star Charlton Heston, as Moses, brandished in the movie.

Had Ritze put the monument in his backyard, garage, or simply given it to his church as a gift, no problem, but since he insisted it be placed at the entrance to the Capitol, the court ruled his intent was to promote a Judeo-Christian worldview. 

Not at all, countered Ritze, who said it was not a bow to any one religion but a celebration of our shared monotheistic history. 

The Court had none of it. 

The Ten Commandments monument’s location on state property is a clear violation of a straightforward, unambiguous provision of the Oklahoma Constitution. 

In its short life at the capitol, Commandments were misspelled, it was driven over by the car of a madman, challenged in court by the ACLU. Additionally, the State Capitol Preservation Commission was inundated with so many requests from those who wanted to place additional monuments next to it—including, my favorite, a “Flying Spaghetti Monster” exhibit—the commission put all requests on hold.

Moses didn’t have this much trouble getting the original down Sinai. 

After the court’s 2015 decision that called for its removal, the pouting began, led by the governor.

“[The Court’s] decision was deeply disturbing to many in our legislature, many in the general public, and to me.” Fallin said. … “During the [examination] process, which will involve both legal appeals and potential legislative and constitutional changes, the Ten Commandments will remain on the Capitol grounds.” 

Apparently, in Oklahoma, a governor can ignore the state supreme court if she finds its rulings “deeply disturbing.” That appeal, to which the governor alluded, failed and the monument was removed in the dead of night. State legislators then immediately approved Senate Joint Resolution 72, which was the basis for SQ 790, in hopes of getting it back.

Let me stop for a second. What was promoted by Ritze, and is now being championed by Attorney General Scott Pruitt, is not, as the court suggested, a Judeo-Christian system of religion in Oklahoma—it’s a Christian one. (More on this in a moment, but the term Judeo-Christian, part meaningless, part insulting, is something of a sop to Jews to make them feel like they’re on the home team). Moreover, there are many versions of the Ten Commandments. In the Jewish Bible (that’s the Old Testament for those scoring at home), the first one reads:

I am the Lord thy god, who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. 

In Ritze’s version:

Thou shall have no Gods before me. Thou shall no make unto thyself any graven image. 

Not for nothing, but for Jews, that “brought thee out of the land of Egypt” is kind of a big deal.

To Attorney General Scott Pruitt, though, it’s just history.

“The court completely ignored the profound historical impact of the Ten Commandments on the foundation of Western law.” 

Please. Not only are The Ten Commandments not mentioned in the U.S. or Oklahoma Constitution, if it were the foundation of Western Law, we’d be throwing people in the hoosegow for infidelity, working on the Sabbath (both Saturday and Sunday), cursing, and desiring great riches.

Further, according to Epps, courts get cranky—as they did with Judge Roy Moore in Alabama when he tried to place a Ten Commandments monument at the state’s supreme court building—when people start getting hinky with the establishment clause.

“Each monument is tested by a fact-specific test,” Epps says.

And the one in Oklahoma clearly failed. 

The Court, by the way, didn’t just swat away Ritze’s contention and Pruitt’s appeal, reaffirming its ban on state property being used for religious purposes, it called the two on their disingenuousness. 

Stripping the Ten Commandments of their religious significance and characterizing them as secular and a component of the foundation of the laws of this State trivializes the sacred nature of the text and degrades those individuals who truly believe the Ten Commandments are a covenant between God and His people.

As Epps says, “If courts rule the way religious groups want, then states won’t be able to exclude religious groups from lots of programs.” Further, he adds, if the Blaine Amendment is repealed, legislators will be able to start shoveling money to “preferred religious entities, including churches and schools.”

And that may be the point. This is the new American fundamentalism, a creeping, concerted effort by those who want a faith-based America—a Christian-based America—and it’s been percolating for almost a quarter century.

In 1992 at a governor’s conference, then-Mississippi Governor Kirk Fordice said the following:

“The United States of America is a Christian nation … It is just a simple fact of life in the United States of America. … And the less we emphasize the Christian religion, the further we fall into the abyss of poor character and chaos in the United States of America.”

But it’s what happened next which is even more chilling.

At that point, South Carolina’s Carroll Campbell stepped up to the lectern and hastily extended that point to include America’s Judeo-Christian heritage. The Washington Post reported what happened next: Campbell then stood back, put his arm on Fordice’s shoulder and said quietly: “I just wanted to add the Judeo part.” Fordice, appearing to glare at Campbell, said: “If I wanted to do that, I would have done it.”

Let’s remember: SQ 790 was written by Christians for Christians—not for the protection and/or celebration of Jews, Sikhs, Buddhists, Muslims, their beliefs or histories. And I’d bet all the dinars in my thobe against all the dinars in your thobe, if any of those faith communities wanted to honor its religious tenets on public land, Oklahoma legislators would have denied the request—and denied it using the same statue, Article 2, Section 5, they’re now trying to gut. 

That SQ 790 promises to do away with that protection, promises to chisel away at such a fundamental American principle—and all because legislators threw a hissy fit when the court took away their monument—makes it one of the most abominable and childish state questions ever to appear on a ballot.

For more from Barry, read his article on the killing of Khalid Jabara.

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