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Friday, June 14, 2024 | Back issues
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Atheists Challenge State’s Religious Monument

OKLAHOMA CITY (CN) - A Ten Commandments monument at the Oklahoma Capitol is an unconstitutional sponsoring of religion and must be removed, American Atheists claim in Federal Court.

The New Jersey-based atheists and two of its members from Oklahoma sued 15 state officials, including 10 members of the State Capitol Preservation Commission. American Atheists claims the 5-foot-tall stone monument violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, the Due Process and Equal Protection clauses of the 14th Amendment and the Supremacy Clause of Article VI of the U.S. Constitution.

Plaintiff Aimee Breeze claims the monument is "hurtful and exclusive," so she stays away from it while at the Capitol.

The plaintiffs claim the state's endorsement of religion "indirectly compels participation" by nonbelievers.

"This endorsement, and its converse coercive effect on those with faith traditions inconsistent with those supported by the display, force plaintiffs to endure a continuing violation of the peoples' liberty of conscience, committed in their names as citizens of Oklahoma," the lawsuit states.

"Plaintiffs object to the use and display of the display due its co-option of their religious traditions, resulting in a cheapening and degradation of their shared faith." Breeze claims she often attends legislative events at the Capitol, related to her membership in several advocacy organizations.

Plaintiff William Poire says he avoids the Capitol altogether.

"The placement of the display results in unwelcome contact by the individual plaintiffs and other members of plaintiff American Atheists with the display, during times that such members of American Atheists and other similarly situated citizens need to use state facilities available only at the state capitol building," the complaint states.

After the monument was erected in 2012, requests for similar monuments were filed by a Hindu group, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, and the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, among others.

In January, a New York City-based Satanic Temple submitted an application to erect a 7-foot-tall statute of a goat-headed Satan flanked by smiling children, "to reflect the views of Satanists in Oklahoma City and beyond."

The plaintiffs say a moratorium on new monuments was put in place after earlier lawsuits against the Ten Commandments monument were filed.

The American Civil Liberties Union sued the defendants last year, demanding removal of the Christian monument, citing the "self-evidently exclusive" religious message "that supports and endorses the faiths and creeds of some churches and sects."

American Atheists say the moratorium did not require removal of the Ten Commandments monument.

"(T)hus the decision allows exclusive and continued exhibition of the Ten Commandments display to the detriment of consideration of other monuments which might have a clearly nonreligious message," the complaint states.

"(T)he moratorium leaves the Ten Commandments display as the sole monument in the physical area of its placement, and thus creates the 'effect' of an endorsement or promotion of its religious text and content by its exclusive display."

American Atheist says the moratorium itself violates the Establishment Clause because there was no "perceived need" for a moratorium until the other groups asked to erect their own religious monuments. This resulted in the defendants "making a choice of preference" for the Ten Commandments and becoming "entangled" in decisions based on religious content or context.

"A refusal to even consider other religious monuments is a rejection, even if temporary, of those monuments and the corresponding religious beliefs which they represent," the complaint states. "While the position of plaintiffs is that no monuments of religious content should be allowed on the Capitol grounds, if it be determined that monuments are permitted, plaintiff American Atheists would seek placement of a monument on the Capitol grounds to the guiding principles of its organization."

The State Capitol Preservation Commission did not respond to request for comment Wednesday evening.

American Atheists is a nonprofit membership organization that promotes "the complete and absolute separation of church and state and to preserve equal protection for atheists" in the Constitution, according to the complaint.

The plaintiffs seek declaratory and injunctive relief. They are represented by Michael Salem of Norman.

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