Editor’s Note: Bruce Prescott is a Southern Baptist minister in Oklahoma and a former member of the Americans United Board of Trustees. Prescott, along with AU chapter activist James Huff, served as a plaintiff in a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union challenging display of the Ten Commandments at the Oklahoma state Capitol.
Earlier this year, the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in Prescott v. Capitol Preservation Commission that the display must come down. Calling it “obviously” a religious document, the court majority ruled that the six-foot-tall granite marker violated Article 2, Section 5, of the Oklahoma Constitution, which bars public support for “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.”
To read more about Prescott’s views on church-state separation and religious liberty, visit his blog, Oklahoma Faith Network, at: okfaith.blogspot.com.
Q. You are a Southern Baptist minister who now calls himself a “post-denominational Christian.” What specifically about your faith led you to take this case on?
Prescott: I call myself a “post-denominational Christian” because today differences between denominations are insignificant in comparison to the divisions between conservative and progressive Christians within each denomination. In Baptist life only a remnant remain advocates for separation of religion and government. On this issue, I find that I have more in common with progressive-minded people of other denominations, other faiths and people of no faith than I do with most contemporary Baptists.
Few people today know that the earliest Baptists were some of the foremost champions of separation of church and state. Those Baptists championed liberty of conscience, and by that they meant the universal right to self-determination in matters of religious belief and worship. They held that decisions regarding religious life and eternal destiny are intensely personal and require a conscientious commitment by a mature individual. Convictions so central to the integrity of personality and character could not be delegated to others — least of all to the government. In their eyes, genuine faith could not be coerced or handed down like an heirloom. That led them to become advocates for religious liberty for everyone — including pagans, atheists, Jews, Muslims and people of other faiths.
I share these convictions of the early Baptists. That is why I opposed placing the Ten Commandments monument at the state capitol in Oklahoma. In that location, the monument symbolizes a union of church and state that is detrimental to both. In effect, it serves notice that the government endorses a certain stream of religion and treats its adherents preferentially. It gives the appearance that persons of no faith and people of other faiths are second-class citizens.
Q. You got some negative reaction to your involvement in the case. Did that surprise you and how have you responded to it?
Prescott: I was not surprised by the negative reaction to my involvement in the case. Most of my harshest critics are Baptists. In Oklahoma today, most Baptists and the vast majority of outspoken Christians champion religious liberty only for themselves. To do this they have redefined liberty of conscience to mean the freedom to impose their religious convictions on all society.
My response has been to ignore the personal attacks and focus on informing the public about the dangers that government endorsements of religion pose to genuine faith. I am doing that through media interviews, speaking engagements, PowerPoint presentations and my Oklahoma Faith Network blog.
Q. How do you respond to those who say the Ten Commandments should be posted by government because they are the foundation of U.S. law?
Prescott: Hogwash! Our system of laws is based on the U.S. Constitution and English common law. The common law tradition dates from the fifth century A.D. to the system of the Saxons who were influenced by ancient Roman law. Christianity was not introduced in England until the seventh century A.D. Thomas Jefferson’s February 10, 1814, letter to Thomas Cooper is clear evidence that the history of common law was well known among the Founding Fathers.
Q. Those of us who advocate for separation of church and state often have a hard time convincing people that government displays of religious symbols are a bad idea. What do you think is our strongest argument in this area?
Prescott: When government appropriates religious symbols, the symbols lose their religious significance. Thoughtful examination of legal arguments advocating the erection of Ten Commandments monuments on government property make this clear.
The Ten Commandments are the terms of a religious covenant between God and people of faith. Its religious nature is obvious – but that is precisely what the monument’s proponents must deny in court. In court they argue that the monuments are secular symbols acknowledging the foundation of U.S. law.
Ironically, the most sacred symbol of Abrahamic faiths – the word “God” (engraved six times on the monuments) – is thereby treated as having no religious significance (violating one of the commands engraved on the monument). In court they must deny any religious intention for the monuments because the government is constitutionally prohibited from establishing any religion.
Outside the courts, the clear perception is that the monuments serve a religious purpose. That is why Satanists, Hindus and others want to place competing religious symbols on government property. It is also why the monument’s proponents react with anger and hostility when the courts order their removal.
Q. During the litigation, some people recommended that the Ten Commandments be displayed at the Capitol alongside the symbols of other religious faiths. What are your thoughts on this?
Prescott: I am opposed to all religious monuments at the Capitol. I think the Constitution intends for the government to be benevolently neutral in regard to religion. The Constitution grants people of all faiths and people of no faith equal rights as citizens in our society. At times the courts have argued that governments have created open forums for free expression and have permitted the erection of religious symbols. If the courts determine that Capitol grounds are open forums, then I would reluctantly favor equal rights for the placement of symbols of all faiths. I suspect, however, that this would only result in additional conflict and litigation regarding the propriety and/or prominence given to the placement of some monuments.
Q. State legislators in Oklahoma are threatening to rewrite the state constitution or impeach the members of the state supreme court who voted to remove the display. Is this just idle talk or does it represent a real threat?
Prescott: The threat to impeach members of the state supreme court is idle. Justices are elected to serve six-year terms. The justices who voted to remove the monument are certain to face serious, well-funded challenges the next time they are up for re-election.
The threat to rewrite the state constitution is real. A resolution with numerous sponsors and the support of the governor has already been prepared for the next legislative session. If it passes, which is likely, the issue will be placed before voters during the 2016 election cycle.
Q. Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin has vowed not to remove the Ten Commandments monument. Americans United faced similar defiance over its suit against a government-backed Decalogue display at the Alabama Judicial Center in 2000. Why do you think so many politicians are so willing to go to the mat over this issue?
Prescott: I think there are at least four reasons why politicians go to mat over this issue. First, some are misguided Christians ignorant of constitutional law. Second, some politicians know better and are simply pandering to the unconstitutional wishes of their constituents. Third, in Oklahoma many are Christian Nationalists who expect the government to endorse and give preferential treatment to their faith. Fourth, a few are Christian Reconstructionists who expect Christians to exercise dominion over all society and are systematically working to have their faith established constitutionally.
Q. As a plaintiff in a church-state lawsuit, do you have any advice for individuals who may be contemplating this type of litigation?
Prescott: Stand firm, trust the process and be patient.
I always thought we would win this case. I never thought we could win before appeal. I did not expect it to take so long to work its way through the state Supreme Court. I was pleasantly surprised at the margin by which we won.
If judges in Oklahoma have the courage to uphold the constitution, there are grounds for hope in every other state.