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Fallout from Ten Commandments ruling could be substantial, lawmaker says

Andrew W. Griffin / Red Dirt Report
The Ten Commandments outside the Oklahoma State Capitol in this 2012 RDR file photo.
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Rep. Echols plans resolution asking for vote to repeal part of Constitution

OKLAHOMA CITY – The fallout from a controversial Ten Commandment ruling made by the Oklahoma Supreme Court could be widespread if the state Constitution is interpreted in a strict manner, a state representative said.

Rep. Jon Echols (R-Oklahoma City) said the part of the Constitution the justices relied on while making their ruling is referred to as a Blaine Amendment. The amendment was part of the original document when Oklahoma became a state, he said. The Blaine Amendment was inserted into the Constitution as an anti-Catholicism move aimed at stopping government aid to parochial schools, especially those operated by the Catholic Church.

If Section 2, Article 5 of the state Constitution is interpreted in the strictest way, public schools could be prohibited from allowing churches to meet there for Sunday worship, Echols said. In addition, objections could be raised against church-operated daycare centers which receive government funding, he said.

Under the most recent Oklahoma Supreme Court ruling, church-affiliated hospitals such as Mercy and St. Anthony’s might not be entitled to Medicaid funds.

“There can be no direct or indirect benefit to any religious organization, whether with money or on state property,” Echols said.

As a result, Echols plans to introduce a resolution next legislative session that would allow a public vote on repealing Section 2, Article 5 of the state Constitution. Oklahoma Supreme Court justices ruled 7-2 last week that the Ten Commandments monument must come down based on the state Constitution.

The justices relied solely on Section 2, Article 5 for their ruling. That portion of the Constitution reads, “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.”

“Citizens deserve a vote if they want that in their Constitution,” Echols said. “It’s worth having a discussion about it now. People deserve a vote as to whether or not they want any religious symbols on any state property.”

Repealing that section of the Constitution would likely cause the Supreme Court to reverse its Ten Commandments decision.

Echols said citizens shouldn’t worry about the separation of church and state since the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment still maintains the Establishment Clause, which prohibits the establishment of a government-sanctioned religion.

Still, the Court’s ruling elicited emotional responses from both sides after it was announced. Some lawmakers went so far to demand the seven justices who voted in favor of the plaintiffs be impeached from office.

Echols said he believes the controversy is turning into a legal and religious battle.

“There’s definitely a legal one going on with people responding to a decision that the majority of

Oklahomans disagree with,” he said. “The most immediate response is to do something about the law as it is written.”

Interpretation

Legal precedence exists for a Ten Commandments monument on state property. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year Texas could keep its Ten Commandments display because the monument did not try to establish a government religion.

But in Oklahoma, the Blaine Amendment is the major sticking point. That issue could be resolved either through a public vote to repeal or with a more detailed judicial interpretation of the Blaine Amendment.

That might come sooner than expected based on a case out of the Tulsa area. In that instance, Tulsa Union Public Schools sued parents of a disabled student for accepting Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship money, alleging the parents violated the Blaine Amendment by taking the funds and sending their disabled child to a religious-affiliated school.

“The Court will have the opportunity to write a Blaine Amendment decision that is much more comprehensive this time,” Echols said. “I don’t think the Blaine Amendment was (originally) intended as broadly as the Court interpreted. I think it was designed to keep the state from funding religion and from allowing churches to have free rent. I don’t think it was ever intended to apply to service relationships and public monuments of historical significance. The Blaine Amendment is bigger than the Ten Commandments monument.”

Republican Congressman James G. Blaine proposed the amendment to the federal Constitution in 1875.

The proposed amendment passed by a vote of 180-7 in the House of Representatives, but failed by four votes to achieve the necessary two-thirds requirement in the U.S. Senate. It never became law.

However, supporters of the proposal had far greater success in state legislatures. Eventually, all but 11 states passed laws that meet the general criteria for designation as Blaine Amendments, in that they ban the use of public funds to support religious-affiliated schools.

Blaine proposed the amendment to the federal constitution after President Ulysses Grant said in a speech that government should mandate free public schools and stop using public money for sectarian schools operated by religious organizations. Religion, he said at the time, should be left to families, churches, and private schools devoid of public funds.

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Tim Farley

Tim Farley is an award-winning journalist with more than 30 years of experience, including...

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