OKLAHOMA CITY — A federal judge has rejected a challenge to a Ten Commandments monument on the grounds of the Haskell County Courthouse in Stigler.
The American Civil Liberties Union and a Stigler resident sued the Haskell County Commission for approving the granite monument, alleging that the marker promotes one religion — Christianity — to the exclusion of all others.
U.S. District Judge Ronald A. White in Muskogee ruled that the county did not violate the Constitution by erecting the monument and it does not need to be removed.
In his Aug. 18 ruling, White wrote that the county did not "overstep the constitutional line demarcating government neutrality toward religion."
County leaders and their attorneys had argued that the monument was part of a historical display outside the courthouse that included other monuments recognizing war veterans, the Choctaw Tribe and others. The Ten Commandments monument has the Mayflower Compact etched on the other side, and a Haskell County commissioner testified during the trial that it was approved because it is historically significant to the United States and the county.
Kevin Theriot, an attorney for the Haskell County commissioners, said the other monuments were crucial.
"A significant factor is that someone comes and looks at all the monuments on the lawn, they can't just single out the Ten Commandments monument and say, 'Ah ha!' and that means government is impermissibly endorsing religion," Theriot said.
A local lay pastor, Mike Bush, raised the money to erect the monument, which is 8 feet tall and 3 feet wide. A larger monument recognizing county residents who died in World War I and World War II sits at the center of the courthouse lawn. Other memorials recognize residents killed in the Vietnam and Korean wars and unmarked Haskell County graves.
"I think that's really important to see that religious documents and our religious heritage are part of our history, and when a governmental entity acknowledges that, it doesn't violate the establishment clause," Theriot said.
Micheal Salem, an attorney representing the American Civil Liberties Union and Stigler resident James W. Green, said he thought "the court's decision really represents a loss for religious freedom."
"It's really disappointing because essentially those people who are not of Christian belief in Haskell County have found that their religious beliefs are diminished by the presence of the monument and, unfortunately, by the court's decision," Salem said.
Salem said he thought the Mayflower Compact was placed on the back of the monument "for the intentional purpose of trying to make the monument have what they thought was a more secular — that is, nonreligious — effect."
"In reality, the Mayflower Compact in and of itself was an adopted religious covenant that itself has deep religious significance," Salem said.
Salem said he would have to thoroughly review White's decision before deciding how to proceed. White did not rule on whether Bush or Haskell County owned the monument, stating that he did not "see how the outcome would affect the outcome in any event."
"I think obviously who controls the monument, who is responsible for it and who has to deal with those issues are important, and of course the judge's decision not to emphasize that certainly will be part of what we consider to do and whether there are grounds for appeal," Salem said.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that religious displays are not inherently unconstitutional and must be considered on a case-by-case basis. Last year, the high court allowed the Ten Commandments to be displayed outside the Texas state Capitol (Van Orden v. Perry) but not inside two Kentucky courthouses, where the justices said the displays promoted a religious message (McCreary County v. ACLU).