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Oklahoma’s Ten Commandments statue must be removed, state Supreme Court says

The Ten Commandments monument is pictured at the state Capitol in Oklahoma City, Tuesday, June 30, 2015. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

Oklahoma’s embattled Ten Commandments statue violates the state’s constitution and must be removed from the capitol, according to a new ruling from the state’s Supreme Court.

The statue — a six-feet-tall and three-feet-wide slab of stone that’s shaped vaguely like two tablets — has stood at the statehouse in Oklahoma City since 2012, though it was briefly destroyed and then reinstalled in 2014. It was paid for with private donations and approved by the legislature.

On Tuesday, the state’s high court handed down a short but clear ruling saying that the statue must be taken down. According to the court, the Ten Commandments is “obviously” a religious document, and the state constitution prohibits any public property from being used to support a specific religion.

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Defenders of the statue have argued that the commandments were placed on the capitol grounds as “historical context,” given the influence the Ten Commandments had on the formation of American law. They also argued that it was similar to a Ten Commandments statue in Texas whose legality was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

In the Oklahoma ruling, seven of the court’s nine justices noted that their opinion “rests solely on the Oklahoma constitution with no regard for federal jurisprudence.”

They continued: “As concerns the ‘historic purpose’ justification, the Ten Commandments are obviously religious in nature and are an integral part of the Jewish and Christian faiths. Because the monument at issue operates for the use, benefit or support of a sect or system of religion, it violates Article 2, Section 5 of the Oklahoma Constitution and is enjoined and shall be removed.”

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Article II, Section V of the state constitution specifies that “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.”

Bruce Prescott, an ordained Baptist minister who was one of the plaintiffs in the case against the statue, said that the statue is “unavoidable” to people walking near the Capitol building, and it gives the impression that the state endorses Christianity as an official religion.

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“I’m not opposed to Ten Commandment monuments; I’m opposed to them on government property,” he told The Washington Post on Tuesday. “How do you take a covenant between God and his people and make it a secular monument?”

Prescott added that Baptists have historically defended the separation of church and state and have insisted that religious texts continue to be interpreted in a religious context.

“If you’re saying that it’s no longer religious, what have you done to religion?” he said. “They’ve just completely destroyed the significance and value of the words.”

In a statement, Oklahoma’s Attorney General Scott Pruitt said the court “got it wrong.”

“The court completely ignored the profound historical impact of the Ten Commandments on the foundation of Western law,” Pruitt said, according to KOCO.

Pruitt said his office will file a petition calling for a stay of the court’s order and noted that because of the court’s interpretation of the section of the state constitution, it might be “necessary to repeal it.”

While it has been in the state capitol, the Oklahoma statue has had other consequences. Religious groups, including the Satanic Temple and a Hindu organization, have proposed their own statues for placement on the capitol grounds. The state Supreme Court’s ruling seems to also put a halt to all of those plans as well.

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Prescott said that given how politically controversial the Ten Commandment statue is in Oklahoma, he was “pleasantly surprised by the strength of the ruling.” He also welcomes talk of revising the constitution to address the issue.

“It’s probably good for them to have an open and honest conversation instead of playing games,” he added.