Baptist Okla. governor must decide whether to OK Decalogue monument

OKLAHOMA CITY (ABP) -- Oklahoma’s Baptist governor faces a monumental decision whether to sign or veto a Ten Commandments bill that some Baptist leaders say violates religious liberty.

Gov. Brad Henry (D) has five days to decide on the measure authorizing erection of a monument to the Decalogue on the grounds of the state Capitol.

OKLAHOMA CITY (ABP) -- Oklahoma’s Baptist governor faces a monumental decision whether to sign or veto a Ten Commandments bill that some Baptist leaders say violates religious liberty.

Brad Henry (PHOTO/Okla. Governor's Office)
Gov. Brad Henry (D) has five days to decide on the measure authorizing erection of a monument to the Decalogue on the grounds of the state Capitol.

The Oklahoma Senate voted 38-8 May 11 to approve House Bill 1330. The move came just days after the state House of Representatives approved the proposal with only two votes in opposition.

The Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty released a statement May 12 urging Henry to veto the bill.

The monument would “send a message of exclusion to those who do not share the Judeo-Christian tradition and a message of favoritism to those who do,” the statement asserted.

“We should be more concerned with following the Ten Commandments rather than merely posting them on government property,” Holly Hollman, the Washington-based group’s general counsel, said in the statement. “Religion flourishes best when the separation of church and state is protected.”

Supporters of the bill -- including its chief sponsor in the state Senate, Sen. Randy Brogdon (R-Owasso) -- said the monument wouldn’t threaten church-state separation because the Ten Commandments are an integral part of the nation’s and state’s legal history.

The Decalogue “is an absolute document interwoven through our society and our basis of law,” Brogdon, said, according to the Daily Oklahoman. “Disregard for that document is to have a disregard for the rule of law. Without it, we would be a nation of anarchy. It has put us on a very solid foundation.”

Brogdon, who has announced his plans to run for governor next year, also said that the display would pass constitutional muster, because his bill models it after a similar monument on the Texas Capitol grounds. The federal Supreme Court OK'd the Texas display in its 2005 Van Orden v. Perry decision.

Leaders of Americans United for Separation of Church and State sent Henry a letter May 11 challenging Brogdon’s characterization of the proposed Oklahoma display. It noted that, in the Van Orden case, the justices took into account both the monument’s long history and its context -- a park-like setting with other historical monuments. On the same day that it handed down that decision, the court also struck down two Kentucky counties’ newer Ten Commandments displays.

The letter also noted that Jews arrange and interpret the commandments differently than Christians and that different Christian traditions -- including Catholics, Lutherans and other Protestants -- also differ in their translations, interpretations and presentations of the commandments. Brogdon’s bill authorizes a version of the Decalogue that is most commonly cited by non-Lutheran Protestants.

Bruce Prescott, executive director of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists, signed the Americans United letter. He said May 12 that the state of Oklahoma had no business taking a side in a debate that has been going on for centuries among Jewish, Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran and Reformed theologians.

“Should the government endorse sectarian interpretations of the Bible? Is it the one that makes the decision?” he asked. “That’s the bottom line here.”

Prescott accused the legislators pushing the bill of having a thinly veiled agenda -- to marginalize minority religious groups.

“They’re just making a statement; they’re trying to do the best they can to make sure that everyone knows that Oklahoma endorses a Christian text,” he said. “Now, they’ll say it’s ‘Judeo-Christian,’ but you’ll tell from the interpretation they put up on the monument that it’s not Jewish; it’s the Christian version. And it’s going to be Protestant; it’s not Catholic. In one fell swoop, they can take care of all their prejudices.”

Prescott acknowledged that Henry -- a moderate Democrat in one of the most conservative and most heavily evangelical states in the union -- was in a tough position.

“He should do the right thing, but he’s a politician,” Prescott said. “And if he does veto the bill, it may be the death of all his chances at future public office.”

According to the biography posted on Henry’s official gubernatorial website, he is a longtime member of the First Baptist Church of Shawnee, Okla., where he has served as a deacon and a Sunday school teacher. The church affiliates with both the Southern Baptist Convention and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

By press time for this story Henry’s press secretary, Phil Bachrach, had not returned phone and e-mail messages left for him May 12 inquiring as to the governor’s decision and when he will make it.

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Robert Marus is managing editor and Washington bureau chief for Associated Baptist Press.

Related ABP story:

Supreme Court offers split decisions in Ten Commandments cases (6/27/2005)