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The lies they tell you about the Ten Commandments monument

Sarah Hussain / Red Dirt Report
The Ten Commandments monument outside of the Oklahoma State Capitol.
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OKLAHOMA CITY – What could be so important about the historical relevance of the Ten Commandments to the American tradition that it has sent Oklahoma lawmakers into a frenzy to repeal the Blaine Amendment? Among many of the flawed arguments that lawmakers are making regarding why the monument should be allowed to stand is that it is not a symbol of a religion but one of historical importance to this country. Somehow, they claim, Western law is significantly based on these commandments.

On Monday, state Rep. John Paul Jordan (R-Yukon) filed House Joint Resolution 1036, a constitutional amendment to remove language contained in Article II, Section 5 of the Oklahoma Constitution. The Oklahoma Supreme Court cited Article II, section 5 as its basis for ruling that the monument of the Ten Commandments must be removed from the state capitol. “Ten Commandment monuments are commonplace in the United States and a widely understood historic basis for our system of law,” Jordan said.

He is not the only one who has uttered this falsehood. Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, in response to the court’s ruling said, “The court completely ignored the profound historical impact of the Ten Commandments on the foundation of Western law.” State Rep. Mike Ritze (R-Broken Arrow) claimed that “(The 10 Commandments) are symbolic of our system of law and our American principles. The history is clear about the roots of our nation and our legal system.” 

Let us take a look at this “profound historical impact” of which American law is supposedly based upon. There are three commandments which American law certainly incorporate, but which are hardly unique to the Ten Commandments, and one which is loosely applicable.

The first three of the commandments have nothing to do with Western law and are overtly religious. I am the lord thy god and thou shalt have no other ... no graven images ... no taking of my name in vain, if enacted as law, would directly contradict the First Amendment’s directive that, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech.”

The fourth commandment, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy” is only loosely applicable. There are some blue laws, although many have been found to be unconstitutional, which prohibit the operation of certain businesses, specifically liquor sales on Sunday.

The fifth, “honor thy father and mother” is harmless enough but not legally enforceable.

The main three that are incorporated in American law, which are codified in commandments six, eight, and nine “Thou shalt not kill...steal...bear false witness” are not exclusive to the Ten Commandments. These ideals are prevalent throughout history and are arguably innate moral precepts. There has yet to be any civilization, Buddhist or Islamic or Confucian, where the law did not admonish theft and murder. Furthermore, these acts were definitely crimes in Pharaonic Egypt from where the Israelites had, if the narrative is regarded as true, recently fled.

Along the same lines, few if any judiciaries in any documented civilization have endorsed perjury, so the notion that witnesses should be truthful can hardly be attributed as a revelation from the commandments.

That leaves us with commandments six and ten.

“Thou shalt not commit adultery” is hardly a touchstone of U.S. law.  There are a few laws regarding this, however they are rarely enforced, and differ greatly among the states. Certain things may be deemed as poor behavior, but this hardly makes it imperative to enact laws banning such actions.

The tenth commandment, a prohibition upon covetousness, is certainly not applied in Western law. I know of few people who would think it legally expedient for our legal system to outlaw emotion.

The Ten Commandments have had no uniquely profound historical influence on American law. What is contained in those first three commandments is directly contradictory to the First Amendment. In addition, they say nothing of rape, genocide, slavery, or race and gender equality. They are a set of principles, many of which are specific to Christianity or Judaism, some of which are broadly applicable to many religions, and some of which societies both before and after the Ten Commandments were revealed have governed by.

In any case, there is no deep-seated relationship between Western law and the Ten Commandments. However, there is an unmistakable link between those commandments and the Judeo-Christian belief system. As the Oklahoma Supreme Court wrote in their opinion, “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.” The lawmakers of this state want the monument to stay because of its religious message, and their argument is poorly cloaked in one of “historical significance.”

Let us move on to some of the scare tactics used in the rhetoric of Oklahoma lawmakers to promote House Joint Resolution 1036.  “I am under the opinion the court’s strict interpretation of the language of Article II, Section 5 could have far reaching implications.” Rep. Jordan said. “It could lead to individuals on state funded insurance programs being unable to receive medical care as a large portion of hospitals in Oklahoma are supported by a religious affiliation.”

There is a scarce amount of case law regarding the 38 states which have similarly worded Blaine Amendments. The assertion that individuals with state funded insurance would be unable to receive medical care from religiously affiliated is pure speculation and incredibly far-fetched.

The Oklahoma version of the Blaine amendment in part states, “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.” This can plainly be seen in the display of the Ten Commandments as they serve to promote the ideals of certain religious beliefs.

In the case of medical care, a hospital’s principal role towards a patient is to provide secular medical services. A patient undergoing a triple bypass is not subject to any promotion of religion by St. Anthony’s Hospital, but only the guidelines of such a procedure as mandated by the medical establishment. If any case challenging the use of state funded insurance at a religiously affiliated hospital were to arise, one can be certain the court would rule against such a challenge, much as the U.S. Supreme Court did in Bradfield v. Roberts where the court contended the “hospital’s primary function was to provide secular care and treatment.”

Rep. Jordan also said that this ruling “could possibly lead to the Native American artwork in the Capitol and State Supreme Court buildings being removed as much of it is religious in nature.” He went on with the fear mongering, dramatically asserting that, “Taken to an extreme it could even lead to churches, synagogues, mosques and other buildings used for religious purposes being unable to receive police and fire protection as they would be directly or indirectly benefiting from public monies.”

Eugene Volokh, a professor at the UCLA school of Law, asserts that these concerns are illegitimate stating it is “likely that the Oklahoma Supreme Court isn’t going to expurgate all these religious references from Oklahoma public property, and that it is indeed planning on reading article 2, section 5 as providing some latitude for some religious references — though not the Ten Commandments monument. And it’s possible that some such rule might be developed.”

Then there is the issue of confusion with the U.S. Supreme Court case Van Orden v. Perry which ruled that the Ten Commandments could remain on the grounds of the Texas State Capitol. Citizens, pundits, and lawmakers alike have admonished the state supreme court for the ruling asserting that it contradicts the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the Texas case.

Two points must be made in regards to this issue.

Firstly, the Oklahoma court made their ruling on the basis of the state constitution and not regarding the establishment clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Oklahoma’s Attorney General Scott Pruitt has filed a petition with the court for a rehearing in light of broader implications of the ruling on state law. Therefore, until the court addresses Pruitt’s petition for a rehearing the order to remove the monument cannot be imposed. Rep. Ritze commented on the petition stating, “The legal counsel is asking for reconsideration. If it passes, it will stay. [If not], then potentially there will be an appeal all the way to the Supreme Court.”

Although, the decision can be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, Ritze’s comment insinuates that it would be likely for the highest court in the land to weigh in. The reality is that it has little chance of being accepted since the case does not involve a federal statute or any U.S. Constitutional issue, a fact that Aaron Cooper, a Pruitt spokesman, confirmed.

Secondly, in Van Orden v. Perry the circumstances were different. The Ten Commandments monument had been on the grounds of the Texas State Capitol since 1961 and was one of many other monuments and statues in a designated area. The monument in Oklahoma was erected in 2009 and stands alone on the grounds of the state capitol.  In Justice Breyer’s concurring opinion he states that, “The physical setting of the monument, moreover, suggests little or nothing of the sacred. The monument sits in a large park containing monuments and historical markers, all designed to illustrate the ‘ideals’ of those who settled in Texas and of those who have lived there since that time.”

It seems that many, both lawmakers and citizens, want the monument of the Ten Commandments to stand because of their belief that Judeo-Christian values are one and the same as American values. Although many Oklahoman’s espouse Judeo-Christian values, the overt  promotion of them on public grounds is forbidden by the Oklahoma constitution. Therefore they have engaged in a campaign to contend that these commandments are not religious but an historical basis for American law. That assertion does not hold up under close examination.

In case the historical basis argument is not persuasive enough they have taken to making unfounded claims about medical care as well as police and fire protection. Lawmakers are attempting to rally their constituents under the guise that their traditional values are under attack. The reality seems to be that the promotion of Christianity in the public sphere is being reevaluated, and many do not like it. They want Christianity and government to be intertwined. 

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Brian Woodward

Brian Woodward is a native of Oklahoma and currently resides in Norman, Oklahoma. However, he...

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