An atheist group has sued Oklahoma lawmakers over a law allowing religious displays on the increasingly crowded Capitol grounds.
State officials set up a Ten Commandments monument in 2012, which has spurred other religious groups – including Satanists, Hindus and Pastafarians – to request permission to set up their own displays.
The ACLU filed suit in August, claiming the state law permitting those displays violated Oklahoma’s state constitution, and the Oklahoma Capitol Preservation Commission imposed a moratorium on all monuments on the grounds.
A Republican lawmaker has pushed for a new bill that would allow more “historical documents,” including the Ten Commandments, to be placed on public grounds in Oklahoma.
But a suit filed Monday by American Atheists argues that the displays and the law that permits their display violates the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
“I want to be clear about this: We have a religious monument, placed on government property, by government mandate,” said American Atheists President David Silverman. “That is an explicit violation of First Amendment protections of separation of religion and government.”
Silverman pointed out that Oklahoma lawmakers had passed a law requiring the monument endorse one specific religion, which he said violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection under the law.
“There is now a law, on the books of Oklahoma, respecting the establishment of Christianity, which is grossly unconstitutional,” Silverman said. “The legislature has broken the law, plain and simple, and we are suing to right this wrong.”
The suit claims the legislation explicitly calls on state officials “to permit and arrange for the placement on the State Capitol grounds of a suitable monument displaying the Ten Commandments.”
The suit also lists each of the Ten Commandments and specifies how most of those laws, which the Bible says were handed down to Moses by God, would violate the U.S. Constitution.
For example, the suit claims, the prohibitions against making graven images and the taking of the Lord’s name in vain would violate free speech protections – and the monuments themselves could be a forbidden graven image.
The sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth commandments – which forbid homicide, adultery, stealing and offering false testimony – are commonly understood wrongs over which the state has justified authority, according to the suit, but the other six violate federal law.
“The last commandment listed on the Display imposes another invasion into the human mind,” the suit argues. “It effectively creates a ‘thought crime,’ wherein the citizenry is enjoined not to ‘covet’ certain items. The items listed include people such as one’s ‘wife’ and ‘servant’ as among ‘things’ like homes and cattle that are possessed by people.”
“Absent is a reference to thy neighbor’s ‘husband,’” the suit points out. “If this were part of Oklahoma law, it arguably would fail on Equal Protection grounds, unless torturously interpreted differently than its plain meaning.”
Some of the suit’s plaintiffs claim that official business at the statehouse forces them to confront the display’s message, which the suit argues violates “the liberty of conscience” of all Oklahoma citizens.
“Plaintiffs object to the use and display of the Display due its co-option of their religious traditions, resulting in a cheapening and degradation of their shared faith,” the suit claims.
American Atheists set up a public monument to atheists last year at a county courthouse in Starke, Florida.
[Image: Moses via Shutterstock]