The battle over the Ten Commandments monument outside the Arkansas State Capitol is about to enter a very interesting phase in a couple of weeks.
Some background for those who have forgotten about this saga: In 2018, Arkansas State Sen. Jason Rapert defied warnings from church/state separation activists when he installed a stand-alone Ten Commandments monument outside the Capitol. Within a month, two separate groups had filed lawsuits against the state.
One of the lawsuits was filed by 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. They sued Secretary of State Mark Martin, who allowed all this to happen. (The defendant is now John Thurston, the current Secretary of State.)
The other lawsuit was filed by the ACLU of Arkansas on behalf of four atheist and agnostic women.
Those cases were quickly consolidated by U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker.
As those cases were being considered, it was unusual that neither of them involved The Satanic Temple, since that group really fueled the controversy. You may recall that they applied to put up their own statue of Baphomet via the same process used to approve the Christian display… but they were rejected.
In 2018, they filed a motion to act as “intervenors” in this legal battle. In short, that meant they were asking the courts to let them join in the litigation because they would directly be affected by how a judge ruled on this matter in the other lawsuits. It was a way to piggyback on the other cases. The judge approved that motion.
Then things started getting even stranger.
Rapert took part in a videotaped deposition… but fought to prevent that deposition from going public because he claimed people would take his words out of context “to cause him extreme embarrassment and harassment.” (He neglected to consider that he never needs to be taken out of context to look bad. His own words, in context, generally do the job just fine.) A local journalist publicly asked Rapert to give him a full copy of the deposition, which he would then post online without editing. It didn’t happen. Shocking. Eventually, the judge caved and allowed the deposition to remain under seal.
Rapert also refused to offer up any financial documents about how much money was raised, who donated to the cause, or how it was spent. Which means we have no idea who donated more than $85,000 to erect the monument.
And then, while all that was happening, a non-jury trial was set to begin more than a year ago regarding the entire matter itself — was the monument constitutional? — but because of the pandemic, it was delayed.
That brings us to the latest development. On September 8, Rapert will have to appear in court to explain why he shouldn’t be held in contempt for refusing to cooperate with this investigation. Max Brantley of the Arkansas Times explains:
In March, the judge found cause to hold a contempt hearing for both sides. In one instance, it applies to plaintiffs’ complaints about the inability to get information from Rapert about his private American History and Heritage Foundation, including names of donors. Rapert resisted, saying donors could be harassed. The judge also has ordered the Satanic Temple to explain why it hasn’t turned over federal tax records. The state’s argument appears to be that the Temple might be a profit-making enterprise. The Temple believes this is irrelevant. It is an intervenor. Other plaintiffs claim an affront as Arkansas citizens to the placement of a religious symbol on public grounds.
Last night, he claimed the contempt charge was “total rubbish” because he had every right to keep the donor list private:
Total rubbish. There is no reason whatsoever for the atheists, satanists or the other godless groups to have access to the names of donors to @Am_Heritage who have not willingly published their own names. None of their business! I will fight for donor privacy! @AFPArkansas #arpx https://t.co/VmtPW360GW
— Jason Rapert (@jasonrapert) August 24, 2021
As I’ve said before, though, Rapert probably sees this as a win-win either way. If the monument stays up, he gets to be a Christian Right hero. If the monument comes down — which it absolutely has to based on legal precedent — he’ll just pretend to be a victim of Christian persecution. If he gets away with contempt, he’s a Christian Right hero. If he’s forced to testify, he’s a victim. It’s all a game to him because he’s a Christian Nationalist who looks down upon everyone who doesn’t share his faith.
It’s worth noting that this is all happening while Rapert is in the middle of his campaign for lieutenant governor (technically separate from the campaign of gubernatorial candidate Sarah Huckabee Sanders). This monument controversy, no matter how it turns out, is bound to be a résumé booster for someone whose only political goal is to use the government to promote right-wing Christianity.
I would’ve reached out to him for comment, but the last time I did that, he threatened me.
(Large portions of this article were published earlier)