Is Oklahoma About To Change Its Constitution For A Ten Commandments Monument?

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Last week, the Supreme Court of Oklahoma ruled that a Ten Commandments monument on the grounds of the state capitol in Oklahoma City must be removed because it violates the state constitution.

The next logical step for proponents of the monument is a ballot initiative to change the wording of the state constitution, University of Oklahoma College of Law professor Rick Tepker told The Oklahoma Daily.

“There’s no appeal from the Oklahoma Supreme Court to the federal courts because there’s no federal issue,” Tepker told the OU campus newspaper. Thus, “the only recourse for people who disagree with the decision is to take it to the ballot.”

State legislators have criticized the state high court’s decision. So has Republican Attorney General Scott Pruitt.

However, because of the nature of the ruling, neither lawmakers nor the attorney general have any recourse to challenge the ruling without utilizing a referendum. As The Washington Post’s Eugene Volokh notes, Oklahoma’s Supreme Court “is the ultimate expositor of the Oklahoma Constitution.”

In the 7-2 decision handed down June 30, the solid majority of justices ruled that the monument is not permitted under the Sooner State constitution, which flatly forbids the use of public money or public property for religious purposes.

The text of Article 2, Section 5 of Oklahoma’s constitution states:

“No public money or property shall ever be appropriated, applied, donated, or used, directly or indirectly, for the use, benefit, or support of any sect, church, denomination, or system of religion, or for the use, benefit, or support of any priest, preacher, minister, or other religious teacher or dignitary, or sectarian institution as such.”

“The plain intent of Article 2, Section 5 is to ban State Government, its officials, and its subdivisions from using public money or property for the benefit of any religious purpose,” the seven-judge majority wrote. “Use of the words ‘no,’ ‘ever,” and ‘any’ reflects the broad and expansive reach of the ban.”

Since the monument is partial to adherents of the Hebrew Bible, the judges reasoned, it’s not allowed.

The six-foot-tall, stone monument was installed on the state capitol grounds in 2012. It had been funded entirely by private donors.

A constitution-changing referendum can appear on a ballot in two ways.

One way is through a signature drive. At least five percent of Oklahoma’s 2.03 million registered voters would have to sign a petition in favor the referendum. That’s roughly 101,500 signatures.

The two chambers of the state legislature can also vote by simple majority to have a referendum added to a ballot.

“Somebody would have to get their act together and move quickly to probably get it on the 2016 ballot,” Tepker told the OU Daily. “But, I suppose it could be done.”

The possibility of a referendum as a democratic means to change the state constitution has existed in Oklahoma since its establishment in 1907.

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