Nearly a month after Arkansas State Sen. Jason Rapert defied warnings from church/state separation activists and installed a stand-alone Ten Commandments monument outside the State Capitol, multiple groups have filed lawsuits against the state.
You can read the entire saga of the monument here. Most relevant is how Rapert tried putting up this monument last June, but a man literally drove into it, shattering it, the day it was erected. While Rapert quickly got to work replacing the Christian display, it also stalled any potential lawsuits.
With the new monument in place (surrounded by four small concrete barriers), it’s time to fight back.
The first lawsuit comes from a coalition of non-theistic groups, including the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the American Humanist Association, the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers, and seven individuals (both religious and nonreligious) who live in the state.
The sole defendant is Secretary of State Mark Martin who allowed all this to happen.
The basic argument goes like this: A stand-alone Christian monument violates both the state and U.S. constitutions, since they both prohibit government establishment of religion. And this is, no doubt, a Christian monument. Rapert said so multiple times, as did donors to his GoFundMe page. The Arkansas legislature was warned about the legal problems during public hearings… but they ignored the critics. Not only that, legal precedent is clear that these kinds of monuments are illegal. Even the Supreme Court has weighed in on this.
Earlier this year, a city in New Mexico was ordered to pay $700,000 in attorneys’ fees after unsuccessfully defending a Ten Commandments monument in court. FFRF has also prevailed in recent years in two cases that succeeded in removing Ten Commandments monuments from Pennsylvania schools.
“The state of Arkansas has no business telling citizens what religious practices and beliefs to engage in,” says FFRF Senior Counsel Patrick Elliott. “This Ten Commandments monument violates the rights of conscience of citizens.”
The AHA adds:
“This monument has been controversial from its inception, because it is a divisive display that favors certain religious beliefs over others,” said David Niose, American Humanist Association legal director. “Government should not be in the business of promoting particular religious views.”
“In these divisive times, the last thing we need is another government project intended to draw a wedge between Christians, the favored group, and everybody else,” said AHA executive director Roy Speckhardt. “Ten Commandments displays belong in churches, not on government property.”
Among the individual plaintiffs, one of them, Joan Dietz, is an active member of an Episcopal church and signed onto this lawsuit because “it appears to send the message that Christians feel superior to others, which is contrary to the teachings of her Christian faith.” Another Christian plaintiff, Gale Stewart, says she follows the “greatest” commandments listed in Mark 12:28-33. Those include “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The rest of the verse reads, “There is no commandment greater than these.”Other individuals include a “Solitary Wiccan Pagan and Buddhist,” a Jewish rabbi, and a minister in the United Methodist Church. You can’t say this is an atheist-only problem.
The other lawsuit was filed by the ACLU of Arkansas on behalf of four atheist and agnostic women.
“The courts have been clear that the First Amendment protects religious freedom and prohibits the government from engaging in this kind of overt and heavy-handed religious favoritism,” said Rita Sklar, ACLU of Arkansas executive director. “By endorsing a specific set of religious beliefs on government property, Arkansas politicians are violating the constitutional rights of the people they’re supposed to serve.”
“This monument is a government-sponsored religious shrine, and it sends a divisive message that the state endorses a specific religious doctrine to the exclusion of all others,” said plaintiff Donna Cave, a retired teacher who is agnostic. “As someone who is agnostic, this endorsement by the state of one religious belief over my own makes me feel like a second-class citizen. Government officials shouldn’t be in the business of dividing people along religious lines — they should represent everyone.”
One thing to note: When the monument went up last month, a lot of buzz centered around a possible lawsuit from The Satanic Temple. After all, Satanists applied to put up their own statue of Baphomet through the same process used to approve the Christian display, but they were rejected. It looked like they had good reason to pursue a lawsuit. But today’s filings don’t include them.
It’s unclear if they plan to pursue their own separate lawsuit, or if they’re backing off since some heavy hitters are now on the case anyway. (A request for comment from Temple spokesperson Lucien Greaves went unanswered as of this writing.) But even if Satanists aren’t included, the people challenging the monument today have plenty of legal weight on their side.
What he won’t do is point to the legal cases that defend what he did because none exist.
His actions were illegal, the state was warned about it, legislators ignored it, and the taxpayers are going to be on the hook for a hell of a lot of money because of their collective irresponsibility.
***Update***: The Satanic Temple’s Greaves tells me:
This is what we were waiting for. We will now be filing our intervenor, and senator Rapert’s 10 commandments financing will be open to discovery. With a head full of theocratic propaganda, revisionist history, and spurious legal arguments, Rapert never quite understood what he was in for, and I doubt that any of this will turn out as he intended.
You can read more about filing as an intervenor here.
***Update 2***: Jason Rapert has finally responded… and he’s a very angry boy. In a Facebook tirade, he referred to the plaintiffs as “anti-American” and eager to “declar[e] their own war.” He’s acting like he’s an innocent little lamb in all this. We’ll see what the courts say.