If you’re an Oklahoma voter (and if you’re reading this, you probably should be) you’ll see State Question 790 on the ballot when you show up to the polls on November 8.
State Question 790 appears on the ballot as a legislatively referred constitutional amendment, which means that Oklahoma’s state legislature voted to put a proposed change to the Constitution of the State of Oklahoma before the public.
This means that you, dear voter, get to decide whether or not Oklahomans’ public resources can be used for religious purposes. That’s right — Oklahoma legislators thought it would be fun if voters got the chance to repeal the separation of church and state this year!
The Question refers specifically to Article II, Section V of the Oklahoma Constitution, which states that “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.” Basically, this section of the constitution prevents public resources from being used for religious purposes. State Question 790, if passed, would remove Article II, Section V entirely.
The question comes in light of a decision made by the Oklahoma Supreme Court in 2015. The court determined that a monument representing the Ten Commandments which stood on the grounds of the Oklahoma State Capitol should be removed based on Section II, Article V of the Oklahoma Constitution. As it should have been — though the monument had not been paid for using taxpayer dollars, it was certainly an example of public property being appropriated and used for the support of a religious system, which Section II, Article V clearly prohibits.
State Question 790 was largely proposed in response to this ruling. Rep. Randy Grau (R- Edmond), who proposed the Joint House Resolution that eventually made its way through the Senate and became State Question 790, did so because he believes that the Supreme Court ruling “went against clear legal precedent supporting the placement of such monuments on government property. Our state’s highest court misinterpreted the Constitution.”
Admittedly, I don’t have a lot of information on legal precedent regarding monuments on government property. That said, I’m mostly appalled by the fact that Rep. Grau decided that he was going to spend his time and energy to create a Joint House Resolution for the express purpose of REMOVING the offending part of the Constitution in order to undermine the Supreme Court’s decision about a statue. Take that, Justices!
That’s the first facet of my thoughts on this issue — why are our legislators wasting their time and our money quarreling over a statue? Admittedly, this is a question that could be applied to the removal of the monument in the first place. Never mind the state of education in Oklahoma, the budget deficit, the rampant health issues, or the extreme rates of poverty. This is clearly what we need to be spending our time on. But since it’s done, can’t we just leave it that way? The debate over this statue highlights an inefficiency and tendency to get wrapped up in insignificant, roundabout issues that is common in both the state and federal government.
However, my biggest problem with State Question 790 is that in attempting to return the Ten Commandments monument to the grounds of the Capitol, it violates one of the most important principles of American government: the separation of church and state.
Supporters of the Question also include Rep. John Paul Jordan (R- Yukon), who lamented the loss of the monument and claimed that “the new interpretation of this provision can potentially make our state hostile to religion and have damaging impacts on our counties, cities and school districts.”
Here’s the thing, Rep. Jordan — religion didn’t have a place in our publicly-funded counties, cities, and school districts to begin with.
I don’t mean to totally bash religion by saying this. The expression of religion is very meaningful and powerful for a lot of people, and practicing a religion is a wonderful personal choice that many make. However, there are very good reasons for keeping the expression of religion separate from public institutions — especially government institutions. And there are very good reasons why the US Constitution states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” in its very first amendment.
Though Article II, Section V doesn’t refer to free exercise of different religions, it does prohibit Oklahoma government from “respecting” religious establishments by restricting their use of public funding and resources.
While the words “separation of church and state,” don’t actually appear in the US Constitution (a misconception based on interpretations of the above quote), it’s a principle that dates back to the founding days of the US.
In an article for the History News Network, Western Washington University history professor Johann Neem writes that after the Revolution, Americans went out of their way to prevent alliances between church and state because they saw such ties as damaging and corruptive to both institutions. “The state risked becoming subject to religious controversies that would threaten its ability to protect individual liberty. Equally important, many Protestants viewed church-state alliances as a way to offer a particular sect…special privileges, rather than to permit various denominations to practice their religion peaceably.”
We’ve already seen this first effect in action — by allowing the Ten Commandments monument on the grounds of the Capitol to begin with, the state has wrapped itself up in a religious controversy that shouldn’t be taking up its time to begin with. If State Question 790 passes, the opportunity opens up for threats to individual liberty to emerge, as well as for preference to go to various religions. In Oklahoma, a majority Christian state, this preference would undoubtedly lean towards Christianity.
If State Question 790 passes, any time a Muslim, atheist, Jewish, or otherwise non-Christian person walks up to the State Capitol, they will see the Ten Commandments monument and know that they are not a priority for their state legislature. They will look at that statue and know that their government does not value them. If Rep. Jordan is truly concerned about Oklahoma being hostile towards religion, then I would love to see him stand up for some of these minority religious groups. When has Oklahoma ever been hostile towards Christianity?
Additionally, Revolution-era Americans feared that alliances between church and state would make the state an intermediary between the individual and God. The state or the state-established church could “speak in God’s name and could mobilize the force of law to enforce religious creeds.” Churches risked “becoming tools of the state rather than of salvation, favoring the affairs of this world over the next world.”
If 790 is written into law, what’s to stop public resources from being used to enforce religious creeds in public schools? That’s what religiously-based private schools are for — providing an education that is in accordance with one’s private religious beliefs. What’s to stop religion from becoming a tool of the state? It’s already being used as a tool in a petty government fight over a monument.
Professor Neem and the Revolution-era Americans agree: “The principle behind religious freedom was always to ensure that individuals could follow the dictates of their own conscience.”
Their OWN conscience. Not the collectively imposed state’s or church’s conscience. To conclude: there is a REASON that we keep this stuff separated. I know there are Christians who would use that public funding for charity and other noble missions. However, as with any religion, that also allows ample opportunity for those with less than noble purposes to abuse their power — religious affiliates and state representatives alike. It allows ample opportunity for the corruption of both institutions.
I have the utmost respect for religion. I have respect for Christianity. But anytime it or any other religious sect is allowed to affiliate itself with government resources, it unfairly implicates the democratic process and the use of those public resources.
And to be honest, I’d really hate to see one of our major freedoms go to hell over a statue.