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Tuesday, May 21st, 2019Last Update: Tuesday, May 7th, 2019 11:03:32 AM

Did the Grinch Steal the Monument?

By: Richard Engle

On September 11, 2015 an Oklahoma County District Court ordered that the Ten Commandments monument be removed from the grounds of the Oklahoma State Capitol after being forced to do so by the Supreme Court of Oklahoma.

The portion of the state constitution referenced in the Supreme Court decision has been said to place a higher standard (different at least) than the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Specifically Article 2, Section 5 says, "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."

The state's highest court took such an extreme position on the matter that many are concerned that the standard of secularism would be so great that Medicaid payments could not be paid to religiously affiliated hospitals, nor would state funded scholarships be able to be used at church sponsored colleges. The same could be used to oust Rev. Dan Fisher from his elected office as a State Representative or to prohibit tithing by state employees. Another significant risk is presented in that state government employees may be prohibited from receiving paid time off for Christmas and Thanksgiving!

Clearly, the State Supreme Court has gone well past the intent of those who placed the provision in the Constitution. Efforts will ensue to remove the passage from the document, but the clear intent was to apply to specific religious entities rather than any unspecified religious genre.

In the case of the monument in question, the supporters of the bill that made it possible were specific in referencing the cultural impact of the Ten Commandments and their impact on the development of civil law.

However, there is also a story in the peculiarities of how the monument was actually removed.

The district court order referenced the Capitol Preservation Commission (CPC), a fact that has been widely reported. However, the details of a called meeting of the Commission have not been widely disseminated.

On September 29th a Special Meeting of the CPC was supposedly held at the capitol building. There were enough irregularities to the meeting to make one wonder if there was indeed a proper meeting at all.

The meeting was called by Linda Edmondson (wife of former Oklahoma Attorney General, Drew Edmondson) under the self styled title "Senior Member Acting as Chair." The call to the meeting lacked any of the typical information regarding the purpose of the meeting, proposed business of the meeting, or announcement of a possible Executive Session.

Despite the absence of a proper call, the Commission (with the smallest possible quorum) met. In a prepared statement Mrs. Edmondson (who later denied a request for a copy of her prepared statement) referenced advice from the office of Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt suggesting that in the absence of a Chair or Vice Chair (who had previously resigned) the senior member of the Commission may act as Chair. She further stated that the "senior member" declined to step into the role and that she chose to do so. Mrs. Edmondson made no reference to an Attorney General opinion or any further advice of counsel that she could assume the role of Chair in the absence of a Chair, a Vice Chair and upon the declination of the "senior member."

In the midst of her remarks she was interrupted by former state Representative Mike Reynolds who claimed the meeting was indeed an "illegal meeting." Mrs. Edmondson vociferously objected to the interruption declaring that it was "not an illegal meeting." Mrs. Edmondson did not respond to the content of Mr. Reynolds' concerns, she simply dismissed them and insisted that he be seated. She then continued with her prepared comments and a motion for executive session was made on cue. Without discussion a vote was taken and the Commission went into executive session. The room was cleared and various members of the media interviewed Mr. Reynolds about his concerns.

Prior to the convening of the Commission meeting, the attorney (no name was given and open records requests are as yet unfulfilled) assigned to the CPC by the office of the Attorney General was heard discussing the ruling by Judge Tom Prince, a former General Counsel for the Oklahoma Republican Party. When she was asked about the apparent violations of legal process by the Commission, she excused that members of the Commission were "trying to do their best to remove the monument." When asked if the Commission had authority or means to remove it or the authority to "authorize the Office of Management and Enterprise Services to remove the Ten Commandments monument from public display" (as suggested in the printed agenda made available during the meeting) she only asked the reporter if he was a lawyer. She did not endeavor to cite any legality to justify the proposed action of the committee.

Former Representative Reynolds attempted to make a statement, but was prohibited by Mrs. Edmondson on the premise that "The Capitol Preservation Commission has never permitted comments by the public." However, a cursory review of the minutes of the Commission shows repeated allowances of comments by persons who were not members of the CPC or staff. Additionally, the rules of the CPC do not address public comment. Mrs. Edmondson did nothing to suggest that she had any legal authority to prohibit such comment nor did she ask the Commission to vote on disallowing public comment.

Upon reconvening the purported Commission meeting a member made the motion suggested in the agenda, reading carefully the words stated therein. The members voted without debate, one member voting in opposition, one in abstention and the remaining members voting in favor. Only a minority of the membership of the Commission actually voted in the affirmative.

While much has been made in the media about a state panel authorizing removal of the monument, little if anything has been said of the extra-legal manner by which the action was taken. What seems clear is that Capitol Preservation Commission members have been placed under an unwelcome and unnecessary spotlight. One can certainly understand the desire of members of a volunteer body to avoid anything that would be considered contempt of court. It is also clear that the Commission did not have legal custody of the monument for which it took action. It would have seemed simple enough for the Commission members to have notified the court that they (as individuals or as a body) were not in custody of such a monument despite their ancillary role in approving the plans for it.

When interviewed for this article, John Estus, Director of Public Affairs for the Office of Management and Enterprise Services (OMES) explained that the monument "was a donation to the state by the family of Representative Mike Ritz and is legally in the custody of OMES and not the Commission." When asked if the Commission has the legal authority to authorize OMES to take any action, he admitted that they did not have such authority.

It may well be that the monument was removed in a manner that is as much a violation of the law as the Oklahoma Supreme Court suggests its presence on state property created. Perhaps the hasty actions taken will result in yet another court action.

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