The Republican-controlled legislature in Oklahoma authorized the placement of a privately-funded monument on the Capitol grounds. The Oklahoma chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit seeking its removal. Meanwhile, according to the Associated Press, a wide range of religious groups — including Satanists — are now seeking to put their own respective statues next to the Ten Commandments.
To be sure, the United States Supreme Court has given mixed signals on First Amendment issues. It struck down a Ten Commandments display in a Kentucky courthouse while upholding a similar monument in a park on the Texas State House grounds. The operative concept seemed to be that the Texas State capitol had 21 markers and 17 monuments surrounding it which commemorated the “people, ideals and events that compose Texan identity.” The Court concluded that the privately funded monument would not give the reasonable observer the idea that the state was endorsing a specific religion when that observer was attuned to the history, purpose and context of all the monuments and markers. If Oklahoma doesn’t have any other context, other than the Bible Belt buckle for which Oklahoma is known, than the monument may very well be deemed to be unconstitutional.
Most importantly, however, is the issue as to why any religious person would consider a monument of the 10 Commandments to be a “victory” if it is next to a Satanist image. At this time of year, a crèche flanked by Santa Claus and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer is no religious accomplishment. Nothing is more demeaning of a religious symbol than to strip it of its meaning and to trivialize it as art deco along with other plastic artifacts of a holiday.
The same issue rears its head when it comes to prayers. Do we want a prayer that means nothing in particular to anybody so it doesn’t run afoul of the separation of church and state? Nothing undermines religion more than a “vanilla” meaningless mumbling of something at a start of an event.
It’s easy to become piqued at the Satanists who engage in a frontal attack of religion by undermining a sacred symbol with its own version of “religion.” Yet, we probably minimize religion ourselves precisely by watering down religious symbols just because we want there to be something there. We also allow politicians to hijack religion in their invocations like “God Bless America,” while they engage in questionable activities personally and policy-wise. Perhaps the politicians in Oklahoma are engaging in a “holier than thou” campaign which minimizes religion in reality.
So, I am a staunch supporter of the separation of church and state for the reasons outlined above.
Of course, some challenges to monuments are ridiculous. In 2012 I predicted that the Freedom From Religion organization would not ultimately challenge the Woonsocket monument erected to honor the sacrifices of soldiers where a cross topped the monolith. The cross was merely a confirmation of the religion of the brothers killed in the War. Similarly, national cemeteries like Arlington can allow the designation of a Cross or Star of David since the marker only designates the religion of the deceased as opposed to any sponsorship of a specific religion.
In any event, let’s keep religion in a hallowed status without undermining it by cheap flourishes.