Commandments monuments erected in 2 Okla. counties

By The Associated Press

COALGATE, Okla. — Two new monuments engraved with the Ten Commandments are being erected in southeastern Oklahoma.

A partially built monument near the Coal County Courthouse was recognized on Aug. 16 by U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, who also visited nearby Atoka County to dedicate its Ten Commandments display on the courthouse lawn.

"We let some of the church ministers speak, but we let them know this was a celebration of America. This wasn't a church service," Atoka monument organizer Nancy Hyatt said.

Hyatt and others have learned to move carefully in building and celebrating the monuments because of legal challenges to similar monuments elsewhere.

Haskell County is fighting in federal court to keep its Ten Commandments monument on its courthouse lawn. A Stigler resident challenged the structure, saying it offended her because she is not a Christian.

U.S. District Judge Ronald A. White has not decided whether the Haskell County monument, placed on the lawn in November 2004, violates the law.

Micheal Salem, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, said monuments violate the First Amendment when their purpose is to promote a certain religion; when they entangle government with religion; or when public officials endorse the religious message conveyed by the monument.

On the other hand, monuments that are part of a larger historical arrangement stand a better chance of surviving. In Atoka, the monument erected last spring has several other displays with it, such as a war and veterans memorial.

In Coalgate, the $5,000 monument plaza is being built on private property north of the courthouse lawn, said County Commissioner Chairman Johnny Ward. Private funds also were raised to build it.

"I hope we've done it in the right fashion to keep some of these protesters away from it," Ward said.

Ward described the monument as a curved plaza with three flagpoles that will have the Oklahoma, American and Christian flags. Two benches will be installed and the black granite monument will have the King James Old Testament commandments engraved in white.

Volunteers will provide the labor, which cuts the construction cost in half, Ward said.

"It goes back to freedom of expression, freedom of speech and I feel like as a whole, we Americans, regardless of what political party you belong to, the majority of us believe in God and trust in him every day. I know I do," Ward said. "I feel like what we're doing here, without a doubt, is something the majority of the people like."