Lawmakers Want Referendum On Church-State Divide

Lawmakers in Oklahoma want to remove a section of the state constitution that prohibits taxpayer money from supporting religion.

In 2015, an ACLU lawsuit forced Oklahoma to remove a Ten Commandments monument from the state capitol. In its decision, Oklahoma's Supreme Court cited Article 2, Section 5 of the state constitution, which reads:

"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."

Both the state senate and house have passed different versions of the same bill removing the text from the state constitution, according to the Oklahoman. Lawmakers would have to reconcile the two versions before putting it on a ballot for a voter referendum, the newspaper said.

If a version of the bill makes it to a referendum, voters will see it on the ballot in November.

Lawmakers who support the removal of the text from the state constitution say it's about more than the capitol's Ten Commandments display. They say it's necessary to protect religious institutions like hospitals, that could be left vulnerable by the language in the offending article, Republican state Rep. John Paul Jordan said.

"It's a bad precedent for the state and it's important that it be taken away," Jordan told the Oklahoman.

Ryan Kiesel, executive director of the ACLU of Oklahoma, warned against the effort. He said the resulting litigation would cost the state money it can't afford in difficult fiscal times, and said lawmakers are misguided if they believe removing the article from the state constitution would sway the outcome of future lawsuits.

"The idea that by simply passing these measures and putting it up for a vote of the people, we somehow will have a lawful display of the Ten Commandments on Capitol grounds doesn't hold water," Kiesel said.

Sources: The Oklahoman, Oklahoma State Courts Network / Photo credit: okhouse.gov

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