Preaching The Gospel Of Separation: Baptist Minister Challenges Ten Commandments Display On Okla. Capitol Grounds

Church-state separation is something everyone can get behind regardless of what they do or do not believe about theology.

An ongoing battle over a government-sponsored Ten Commandments monument in Oklahoma features an interesting twist: A Baptist minister is leading the charge to have it removed.

This fight stretches back to 2009, when Oklahoma lawmakers authorized a Decalogue monument that would be displayed on the grounds of the capitol building in Oklahoma City. The project, which was financed by the family of state Rep. Mike Ritze (R-Broken Arrow), cost about $10,000 and was erected in November 2012.

It was not without a few snafus. The six-foot granite monument originally read “Bless the Sabbeth (sic) and keep it holy” and “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidseruent (sic).”

Spelling errors aside, the Decalogue display is a clear violation of church-state separation. So last week, the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma and the ACLU National filed a lawsuit on behalf of multiple plaintiffs. I’m pleased to say that among them are Dr. Bruce Prescott, a Southern Baptist minister and former member of Americans United’s Board of Trustees, as well as Jim Huff, who led AU’s Oklahoma Chapter for many years. (He’s also a deacon and a Sunday School teacher at his Baptist church.)

The lawsuit is pretty straightforward: the display should be removed because the state is favoring a Judeo-Christian perspective over all others.

“We must ensure that Oklahoma welcomes people of all faiths and those of no faith at all,” Brady Henderson, ACLU of Oklahoma legal director said in a statement. “Our suit asks the court to enforce a simple and fundamental rule that the government does not get to use its vast power and influence to tell you what you should believe.”

Some people in Oklahoma just can’t understand why a Baptist minister would take such a stand. They criticized Prescott, who serves as executive director of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists, after he wrote about the case on his personal blog.

“You are a disgrace!” one man wrote. Another added, “You disgust me.”

Prescott is handling the attacks with good grace. Tulsa Urban Weekly reported that in a 2012 letter to the ACLU, Prescott outlined his objection to the sectarian display at the seat of government. He said he sees the monument during his frequent visits to the capitol grounds through his role as leader of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists and his activities with other groups.

In that letter, he called the monument “an affront to every person who affirms that the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment prohibits the government from establishing religion,” adding that “I am opposed to erecting Ten Commandments monuments on public property and particularly on the grounds of the state Capitol where people of different faiths and of no faith go to exercise their rights as citizens.”

Prescott also said this particular fight hits home for him because his “spiritual ancestors,” Baptists, helped pass the First Amendment so as “to ensure that every citizen had ‘liberty of conscience,’ i.e., the freedom to worship or not worship....That is why they were adamant in denying support for the Constitution until it separated church and state and protected the equal rights of citizenship for all religious minorities....”

So as you can see, church-state separation is something everyone can get behind regardless of what they do or do not believe about theology.

We hope the Oklahoma courts join the bandwagon.