Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1991. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.
From the time I took my first government class at OBU, I’ve heard it said that if given an opportunity, a lot of people would vote to repeal the Bill of Rights. This rather cynical statement refers to the outrage often expressed by some when a court makes a constitutional ruling that goes against the grain of public opinion.
This happens, for example, when a popular law is held unconstitutional. Or it happens when a lower court case involving a particularly repulsive defendant is overturned because he was denied a constitutional right.
The people of Oklahoma will have an opportunity to repeal a section of our bill of rights when we vote on SQ 790 next month. Article 2 of the Oklahoma Constitution is our Bill of Rights. Among them are such provisions as the right of assembly, prohibition against interference with the right to vote, right to trial by jury, prohibition against excessive bail or cruel and unusual punishment, right to due process of law, prohibition against imprisonment for debt, and prohibition against unlawful search and seizure. Altogether there are 37 sections listing the rights we are guaranteed by the Oklahoma Constitution. Rather high up on the list, there from the original adoption of the Constitution in 1907, is Article 2, Section 5:
“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 story of SQ 790 begins when Rep. Mike Ritze (R-Broken Arrow) decided it would be a good thing if a monument of the Ten Commandments were displayed on the Capitol grounds, and he introduced a bill in the legislature to allow that to happen. Rep. Ritze offered to pay the cost out of his own pocket. Oklahoma being a state where an overwhelming majority of citizens profess to be committed to the Ten Commandments, Rep. Ritze’s bill was quite popular, and a majority of legislators voted for it.
Naturally, some people were offended at having the Ten Commandments displayed on the Capitol grounds, and some of them filed a lawsuit to remove it. The Oklahoma Supreme Court read Article 2 Section 5 and ruled that the State Capitol, clearly public property, could not be used to display a monument of the Ten Commandments. Predictably, the ruling created some outrage. So at the next legislative session Senator Rob Standridge (R-Norman) and Rep. John Paul Jordan (R-Yukon) came to the rescue and authored Senate Joint Resolution 72 which, again, passed both houses of the legislature. SJR 72 repeals Article 2 Section 5. SJR 72 became SQ 790 on the ballot.
Now we’ll vote on November 8th on whether or not we like the idea of using public money and property for “any sect, church, denomination, or system of religion or any priest, preacher, minister, or other religious teacher or dignitary, or sectarian institution.” Or some of us may just vote on general grounds to flash an obscene gesture toward the founders and their high flown ideas about liberty — and those pesky courts that keep reading about it in the Constitution. Given the mood of the voters, this may be the year for the utmost test as to whether we will actually begin repealing our bill of rights.