Oklahoma voters will make crucial decisions about their political future this November, and only one concerns the White House. They'll also have the opportunity to remove a clause from the state constitution that defends the separation of church and state.
In April, state lawmakers in both chambers of the legislature passed a measure that puts Section 5, Article 2 of the state constitution up for a vote. If voters decide to strike the clause, it would weaken the restriction on public dollars flowing to religious schools, ministries and groups: Section 5 is a "no-aid" or "no-preference" clause that prohibits public support for certain religious activities.
"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," it reads in full.
Dozens of other states have similar provisions on the books. They are sometimes attacked by opponents of church-state separation, but Oklahoma's battle is unique in that it was inspired by a spat over a Ten Commandments display.
The referendum's advocates say they're reacting to the fate of a 6-foottall granite Ten Commandments monument that once stood on the grounds of the state capitol. Lawmakers authorized the display in 2009 and erected it in 2012; state Rep. Mike Ritze (RBroken Arrow) spent $10,000 of his personal funds on the display.
When pushing the monument, lawmakers didn't bother to disguise their sectarian motivations. The bill authorizing construction of the display asserted that the Ten Commandments "are an important component of the foundation of the laws and legal system of the United States of America and of the State of Oklahoma."
But the monument did not go unchallenged. The Satanic Temple, a humanist group that works to defend church-state separation, announced plans to create a statue of Baphomet, a goat-headed deity associated with the occult, to stand alongside the Ten Commandments.
Predictably, lawmakers balked at the idea.
"This is a faith-based nation and a faith-based state," State Rep. Earl Searles (R-Bartlesville) told Tulsa World at the time. "I think it is very offensive they would contemplate or even have this kind of conversation."
The Oklahoma Capitol Preservation Committee later blocked Baphomet and the Universal Society of Hinduism's proposed statute of Hanuman, a Hindu god, until the conclusion of a legal challenge to the Ten Commandments display.
In due time, an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) lawsuit toppled the monument before it could be joined by either the Satanic symbol of enlightenment or the Hindu avatar of Lord Ram: In June of...