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Oklahoma’s Ten Commandments statue isn’t going anywhere, governor says

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

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin (R) said that the state’s controversial Ten Commandments statue is staying put despite a state Supreme Court ruling ordering it to be taken off the statehouse grounds.

The state’s highest court handed down a broad 7-2 decision last week, which found that the monument violated the state’s constitution.

In statements issued Tuesday, Fallin defended the statue and said that “the court got it wrong.” She added that the statue will remain in place while the state appeals the court’s decision and the legislature considers changes to the constitution.

“Oklahoma is a state where we respect the rule of law, and we will not ignore the state courts or their decisions,” Fallin said. “However, we are also a state with three co-equal branches of government.”

“At this time, Attorney General Scott Pruitt, with my support, has filed a petition requesting a rehearing of the Ten Commandments case. Additionally, our Legislature has signaled its support for pursuing changes to our state Constitution that will make it clear the Ten Commandments monument is legally permissible,” she added. “If legislative efforts are successful, the people of Oklahoma will get to vote on the issue.”

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In the ruling, the court noted that the statue, a six-foot-high stone replica of two tablets engraved with the Ten Commandments, is “obviously” religious in nature. The state constitution specifically prohibits state funds or property from being directed “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.”

Fallin and proponents of the statue note that it was paid for with private donations and say it is no different from a Christmas tree lighting held at the capitol every year or Native American works of art that include symbols of religion, tribal culture and history that are permitted to be displayed on government property.

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“Legislators and supporters of the monument intended it as a tribute to the importance of the Ten Commandments in our history and our system of laws,” Fallin noted in a statement. “Celebrating the historical importance of religions and religious values is not a new idea. Our nation is steeped in references to God and the rights He bestows on all men and women.

“None of these represent state endorsement of or support for any religion. They are celebrations or visual representations of our culture and events of historical importance,” she added.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma, which handled the legal proceedings in the case, called Fallin’s decision “political grandstanding.”

“We along with no doubt a large number of Oklahomans were astonished at the governor’s reaction and the statement today pretending that she has the authority to enforce the laws of some hypothetical future instead of enforcing the laws as they are today,” Ryan Kiesel, the group’s executive director, told the Washington Post. “Governors do not get a blank check to make up the laws as they see fit.”

“That’s not the way that our democracy works and the governor’s statement is unprecedented.”

Kiesel said he believes it is highly unlikely that the state Supreme Court will agree to rehear the case, which has already spanned more than 2-years of litigation. The process of changing the state constitution, which requires putting those changes to a vote could take well over a year, he added.

If the court’s order remains in place during that time and Fallin refuses to remove the statue while waiting for constitutional changes, she could be in contempt of court.

“It creates the potential for a showdown between the legislative and judicial branches,” Kiesel said. “If you refuse to comply with a valid and lawful order of the court, there’s a word for that: it’s contempt.”

In an interview with the Washington Post last week, one of the plaintiffs in the case against the state noted that the monument is so large and unavoidable that it gives the impression of a state-sanctioned religion.

“I’m not opposed to Ten Commandment monuments; I’m opposed to them on government property,” said Bruce Prescott, who is an ordained Baptist minister. “How do you take a covenant between God and his people and make it a secular monument?”

[This post has been updated.]