Federal Court Says Religious Monument At Oklahoma Courthouse Is Unconstitutional

June 9, 2009

Ten Commandments Monument An Endorsement Of Religion

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
CONTACT: (212) 549-2666; media@aclu.org

DENVER – A unanimous federal appeals court yesterday ruled that county commissioners in Haskell County, Oklahoma unconstitutionally sought to promote their personal religious beliefs by erecting a Ten Commandments monument on the front lawn of the county's courthouse. The decision by the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals comes in a challenge filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Oklahoma on behalf of a local resident.

"This decision is a victory for the cherished American value of religious freedom," said Daniel Mach, Director of Litigation for the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. "The government should not be in the business of promoting religious viewpoints. In our country, people should be free to express their faith – or to exercise their right to hold no belief at all – without government interference or favoritism."

In its decision, the court ruled that the monument violated the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution because a "reasonable observer would view the monument as having the impermissible principal or primary effect of endorsing religion." The monument is unconstitutional, the court ruled, because the proposal to erect the monument, its approval by the Haskell County Board of Commissioners, and the commissioners' expressly religious defense of the monument "strongly reflect a government endorsement of religion." 

"This is a significant ruling for the citizens of Oklahoma," said Joann Bell, Executive Director of the ACLU of Oklahoma. "Religion should not be something that should be allowed to divide the citizens of this state, which is what happens when the government endorses one particular set of religious beliefs. All Oklahomans, of all creeds – and not just the beliefs of those in power – should feel welcome at the county courthouse."

The ACLU and the ACLU of Oklahoma filed a lawsuit challenging the display of the monument in October 2005, a little over a year after a Haskell County lay minister, who said "the Lord had burdened his heart" about having a Ten Commandments monument placed on the courthouse lawn, received permission from the Haskell County Board of Commissioners to build it.

Several days after the monument was put up, a dedication ceremony was held that included opening and closing prayers and remarks from several local pastors who talked about the religious significance of the monument. And in the months following the dedication ceremony, members of the Haskell County Board of Commissioners spoke frequently, publicly and often in expressly religious terms in defense of the monument, including statements like "That's what we're going to live by, that right there…The good Lord died for me. I can stand for him, and I'm going to."

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Oklahoma ruled against the plaintiffs in August 2006, prompting an appeal to the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals.

A copy of yesterday's ruling is available online at: www.aclu.org/religion/public/39784lgl20090608.html

Additional information about the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief is available online at: www.aclu.org/religion

Additional information about the ACLU of Oklahoma is available online at: www.acluok.org

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