In the dead of night and under tight security, workers in Oklahoma moved a 4,800-pound monument of the Ten Commandments from the Capitol grounds to a new home on nonpublic land, where its presence does not raise the questions that have sparked protests and lawsuits.
The privately financed monument, 6 feet tall and 3 feet wide, is a single slab of granite shaped like the two tablets famously portrayed in countless works of art and adorning religious institutions across the country. The monument is engraved with a representation of the Ten Commandments given to Moses in the Old Testament.
Installed on the Capitol grounds in 2012, the monument has been the source of friction between those who see it as a violation of the separation of church and state and those who see the commandments as an essential moral forerunner of the rule of law.
Monday night’s move follows a decision by the Oklahoma State Supreme Court that the monument violates a state constitutional provision on the use of public property to support any system of religion.
The removal began about 10:15 p.m. and was completed by 11:30 p.m., John Estus, a spokesman for the state Office of Management and Enterprise Services, said Tuesday. The agency oversees the state’s operations, including the grounds.
The monument has been under 24-hour security for months, Estus said. Officials had heard something might happen, so they decided to move it at night.
“We wanted it to be done as quickly and efficiently as possible, and doing it at night gave us the best opportunity to do that,” Estus said. “The highway patrol was also very concerned that having it in the middle of the day could lead to having demonstrations of some kind.”
The estimated cost of the move by a private contractor was $4,705, Estus said.
The site is now a flat piece of tile surrounded by a construction fence, similar to other spots on the grounds where renovations are underway, he said.
Under the court order, the monument had to be moved by Monday, Estus said. It had taken since June to act because several boards had to sign off on the move and “the gears of government move slowly,” he said.
The monument was transported to the offices of a private conservative think tank, the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, several blocks away, he said.
Now, the monument is more visible from the road than it was while on the Capitol grounds, said Michael Carnuccio, president of the group.
“We decided to act because for 22 years we have been helping to solve problems for the state and this is another one,” Carnuccio said. Now lawmakers can focus on the parts of the state Constitution that were cited by the courts for its ruling against keeping the monument on the state grounds, he said.
The monument has long been the center of controversy. It was authorized by the Republican-controlled Legislature in 2009, paid for by private funds and installed in 2012.
Groups including civil libertarians, a satanic church in New York, those backing animal rights, and even a satirical Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster requested equal space in protest.
The original monument was smashed into pieces last year when a motorist drove a car across the Capitol lawn and crashed into it. A 29-year-old man who was arrested the next day was admitted to a hospital for mental health treatment, and formal charges were never filed. A new monument was erected in January.
The U.S. Supreme Court has taken up the issue of when religious symbols could be used on public land as recently as 2005.
In McCreary County vs. ACLU, the courts looked at displays of the Ten Commandments in Kentucky courthouses. Other documents were displayed as well, such as the “endowed by their creator” passage from the Declaration of Independence. The court barred the displays, saying they clearly promoted the commandments, rather than educated viewers about historical documents.
But in a second decision, Van Orden vs. Perry, the court held that a 6-foot-tall monument at the Texas Capitol inscribed with the Ten Commandments was constitutional. In that case, the court said the monument, erected decades earlier, was one of 21 historical markers and 17 monuments on the vast lawns of the Capitol and, in that context, more historical than religious.
“In certain contexts, a display of the tablets of the Ten Commandments can convey not simply a religious message but also a secular moral message,” Justice Stephen G. Breyer, the court’s swing vote in both 5-4 cases, wrote in a concurring opinion.
The Texas case led Oklahoma lawmakers to believe they had leeway in building a Ten Commandments monument in Oklahoma City.
But in June, the Oklahoma Supreme Court cited the state constitution in ruling against the monument.
“As concerns the ‘historic purpose’ justification, the Ten Commandments are obviously religious in nature and are an integral part of the Jewish and Christian faiths,” the state high court ruled. “Because the monument at issue operates for the use, benefit or support of a sect or system of religion, it violates Article 2, Section 5 of the Oklahoma Constitution and is enjoined and shall be removed.”