The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

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June 27, 2014

UPDATED: Judge postpones Ten Commandments decision

OKLAHOMA CITY — An Oklahoma County judge Friday postponed deciding whether to dismiss a lawsuit challenging a Ten Commandments monument on the grounds of the state Capitol and ordered attorneys to submit new legal arguments on five constitutional issues that may determine the outcome of the case.

District Judge Thomas Prince ruled that there were technical problems with a motion to dismiss the case that was filed on behalf of the Oklahoma Capitol Preservation Commission, which was sued in August by the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma on behalf of the Rev. Bruce Prescott of Norman and others who allege the monument’s location on the Capitol grounds is unconstitutional.

“You need to clean up your motion,” Prince told Assistant Solicitor General Cara Rodriguez of the Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office.

The judge then instructed attorneys for both sides to address five constitutional issues he said had not been adequately addressed in earlier legal filings. They include whether Oklahoma’s Constitution is substantially equivalent to the First Amendment’s prohibition on passing legislation respecting an establishment of religion.

“I want them fleshed out,” Prince said. Prince ordered that a new dismissal motion and legal arguments be filed and rescheduled the hearing for Sept. 12.

Following the hearing, ACLU attorneys said the judge had focused the case on issues that will be crucial if his eventual decision is appealed, which they said is likely.

“Things got clarified today,” said Ryan Kiesel, executive director of the ACLU of Oklahoma.

“It’s something that’s very forward-looking,” said Brady Henderson, the organization’s legal director.

Rodriguez left the courtroom after the hearing without comment.

The monument was erected in November 2012 after Republican Rep. Mike Ritze and his family paid nearly $10,000 to build and place the 6-foot-tall granite monument. It was authorized by legislation passed by the GOP-controlled Legislature in 2009 and signed into law by then-Gov. Brad Henry, a Democrat.

But the lawsuit alleges the monument violates the state Constitution’s prohibition against the use of public property to support “any sect, church, denomination or system of religion.”

“The message conveyed is self-evidently exclusive, explicitly urging those viewing the monument to worship or believe in no other forms of divinity but the one endorsed,” the lawsuit states.

Courts have ruled against many similar monuments, saying they could imply the government is endorsing religion. In 2009, the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled a similar Ten Commandments monument erected on the Haskell County Courthouse lawn in Stigler was unconstitutional because its primary effect is to endorse religion.

But the Capitol Preservation Commission says the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that an identical Ten Commandments monument at the Texas State Capitol was not an unconstitutional endorsement of religion.

 

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