MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

June 8, 2009

Court: Okla. 10 Commandments display is religious

P. SOLOMON BANDA

DENVER (AP) — A federal appeals court in Denver ruled Monday that a Ten Commandments monument outside the Haskell County, Okla., courthouse endorses religion based on public comments made by county commissioners after it was installed.

A three-judge panel of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the monument, which is part of a historical display, "has the primary effect of endorsing religion" when taken in context with the small community of Stigler, Okla., where it sits.

They sent the case back to Muskogee, Okla.-based U.S. District Judge Ronald A. White so he could issue a new ruling consistent with their ruling. In August 2006, White rejected arguments that the monument promotes Christianity at the expense of other religions.

"Whoever was the judge in this, I feel sorry for him on Judgment Day," said Haskell County Commissioner Mitch Worsham, who represents the where the county courthouse and monument are located. "We're not going to take it down."

Haskell County's attorneys can ask all the judges on the appellate court to review the panel's decision, or appeal the case directly to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Worshom said they are considering an appeal.

The privately funded stone monument was erected in 2004. It was proposed by a construction worker who is also a part-time minister.

The court noted that commissioners knew of the monument's religious nature when they approved of it and that they supported and defended its installation.

The panel noted that at least two of the three commissioners were present at the monument's unveiling on Nov. 7, 2004. One commissioner, who wasn't quoted by name in the panel's ruling, said after it was installed: "That's what we're trying to live by, that right there.... The good Lord died for me...."

Stigler resident James W. Green and the American Civil Liberties Union, challenged the monument in a lawsuit filed in October 2005. He said the commissioners' comments and actions showed the community the purpose of the monument was religious in nature.

"Everyone knows each other, and word travels in Haskell County faster than the constant airspeed of a European swallow," Green said in court arguments.

The court said that a reasonable observer would conclude the monument and the commissioners' actions "reflect a government endorsement of religion."

"In particular, we find support for this conclusion in the public statements of Haskell County commissioners," the panel wrote.

Commissioners argued the monument should be viewed as private speech because the lawn includes a public forum for other types of speech that include monuments honoring those who have died in wars, among other monuments.

Other U.S. Supreme Court findings have determined that the public display of the Ten Commandments is not inherently religious when placed into context.

Last month, the Oklahoma Legislature voted overwhelmingly to place a 3-by-6-foot monument of the Ten Commandments on the State Capitol grounds that would be identical to a granite monument on the grounds of the Capitol building in Austin, Texas. The Texas display survived a review by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The ACLU and other groups applauded the ruling.

"This decision should send a clear message to politicians and religious leaders: Thou shalt not mix church and state," Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

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Associated Press Writer Tim Talley in Oklahoma City contributed to this report.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.