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Sunday, July 14, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Atheists Lack Standing in Oklahoma

OKLAHOMA CITY (CN) - An atheist group lacks standing to sue Oklahoma officials to force them to remove a Ten Commandment monument at the state Capitol, a federal judge ruled Tuesday.

American Atheists et al. sued 15 state officials, including members of the State Capitol Preservation Commission, in January 2014.

The plaintiffs claimed the 5-foot-tall stone monument violates their civil rights and " indirectly compels participation " by non-Christians.

U.S. District Judge Robin J. Cauthron dismissed the lawsuit without prejudice Tuesday, granting the defendants' motion for summary judgment.

Cauthron noted that plaintiff Aimee Breeze saw the monument just once before filing the lawsuit and that the sole purpose of that contact was to seek out the monument.

"Indeed, the location of the monument in relation to the Capitol building and plaintiff Breeze's use of that building would require her to walk around the Capitol to find the monument," the 6-page opinion states.

"For this reason, assuming that she did see the monument in January of 2014, that act would not, in and of itself, establish standing, as plaintiff does not have a 'special license to roam the country in search of governmental wrongdoing.'"

Breeze failed to establish the type of personal contact with the monument sufficient to show the "direct injury required for standing," Cauthron wrote.

The ruling is the second defeat for the monument's opponents in the past six months. In September 2014, an Oklahoma County district judge tossed a separate lawsuit backed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma.

That lawsuit, now on appeal to the Oklahoma Supreme Court, argues that the monument "marginalizes" Oklahomans of other faiths and of no faith "by sending a distinct message that they are less welcome " at the Capitol.

The Plano, Texas-based Liberty Institute and Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt defended government officials in the new case.

Liberty Institute general counsel Jeff Mateer said the group is "pleased that the court has rejected this constitutional challenge."

"Today's ruling reaffirms the constitutional principle that a person who goes out of his way to take offense does not have a constitutional claim under the Establishment Clause," Maheer said in a statement.

Pruitt said the ruling is "another victory" and "one more affirmation" that the monument will stand.

"The historical relevance of the Ten Commandments and the role it played in the founding of our nation cannot be disputed," Pruitt said in a statement.

American Atheists spokeswoman Danielle Muscato told Courthouse News the group is "surprised and disappointed" by the dismissal.

"Oklahoma is breaking the law and cannot hide behind standing," she said. "This monument remains unconstitutional and we will return."

Installed in 2009 through private donations, the monument was destroyed in October 2014 when a motorist drove his car onto the Capitol grounds and smashed into it.

Michael Tate Reed, of Roland, Okla., said Satan told him to urinate on and destroy the monument. A replacement monument was erected in January.

Several other religious groups have asked to install their own statutes on capitol grounds, including the New York City-based Satanic Temple. The group wants to erect a 7-foot-tall goat-headed Satan sitting on a pentagram throne with two smiling children standing nearby.

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