OKLAHOMA CITY — The Oklahoma House voted overwhelmingly yesterday to place a monument of the Ten Commandments on the grounds of the state Capitol, setting aside concerns that it may violate constitutional principles that require government to stay neutral on religious belief.
Without debate, House members voted 83-2 for the bill on the National Day of Prayer, during which televangelist and Oklahoma native Oral Roberts addressed the state Senate. A public prayer service was conducted a short distance from the state Supreme Court chamber, and religious-themed displays and kiosks were set up in the Capitol rotunda.
"It wasn't planned," said state Rep. Mike Ritze, R-Broken Arrow, author of the Ten Commandments bill. "I think it's divine, really."
The measure authorizes installation of a 3-by-6-foot monument on the Capitol grounds that would be identical to a granite monument of the Ten Commandments on the grounds of the Texas Capitol in Austin.
Ritze, a physician, says his family will pay the estimated $10,000 cost of the project and that no state funds will be used.
"It's privately funded," he said.
The Texas monument was the focus of a landmark 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision that found it did not violate the First Amendment’s establishment clause. The Court said in Van Orden v. Perry that the key to whether a display is constitutional hinges on whether there is a religious purpose behind it.
The ruling was seen by some as validation of thousands of Ten Commandments displays outside county courthouses and other public buildings around the nation if their primary purpose is to honor the nation's legal, rather than religious, traditions and if they do not promote one religious sect over another.
Ritze's measure says the Ten Commandments display will be placed near other monuments on the Capitol grounds and that it does not signify the state "favors any particular religion or denomination thereof over others."
Ritze says there is historical precedent for erecting displays of the Ten Commandments.
"The Ten Commandments basically goes back 3,500 years," he said. "We need to have something to remind us every day of where we get our history and our law."
If the monument is challenged legally, the attorney general's office or the Liberty Legal Institute, a nonprofit group based in Texas that advocates religious freedoms and First Amendment rights, will defend the display, according to the bill.
Ritze says he does not know if the monument will be the subject of a court challenge.
"Who knows," he said. "I understand their concern about it being unconstitutional." But the Supreme Court has already ruled on the issue, he said.
Ritze says he wants the monument to be placed on the Capitol grounds where it is clearly visible but that the State Capitol Preservation Commission will have the final say on its location.
"Whatever is appropriate," he said.
The measure now goes to the state Senate for final passage.