Okla. Capitol to get stone tablets inspired by film

OKLAHOMA CITY — It's an epic more than 50 years in the making: "The Ten Commandments" monument is coming to the Oklahoma state Capitol.

Five decades after legendary Hollywood director Cecil B. DeMille began distributing granite copies of the Ten Commandments nationwide as part of an effort to promote the star-studded 1956 remake of his 1923 film, Oklahoma's Capitol is finally set to receive one.

The State Capitol Preservation Commission voted 7-4 on Thursday to place the monument along a walkway on the Capitol's north side. The dissenting votes came from members who wished to erect it on the busier south side.

Despite a decision by the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals that a similar monument placed on the Haskell County Courthouse lawn was unconstitutional, the GOP-controlled Legislature this year passed a bill authorizing the privately funded monument, and Democratic Gov. Brad Henry agreed.

"We've been directed to find a location, and that's what we did," said Duane Moss, an Oklahoma City architect and a member of the preservation commission. "The constitutionality is for someone else to decide on another day."

DeMille distributed hundreds of similar monuments across the U.S. and Canada to promote the movie "The Ten Commandments" in the 1950s, but Oklahoma never received one slated for the Capitol, said state Rep. Mike Ritze, who authored the measure and whose family agreed to pay $10,000 to have one built.

"It will be identical to the state Capitol monument in Texas and the other monuments donated by Cecil B. DeMille," said Ritze, R-Broken Arrow.

Inspired by a judge in Wisconsin who distributed copies of the Ten Commandments to juvenile delinquents in the 1950s, DeMille teamed up with the Fraternal Order of Eagles international civic group to place the monuments across the United States and Canada, said Bill Loffler, the Eagles' past international president.

"The idea blossomed into these 174 monuments that you now see today," Loffler said. "One of the neatest thing in our history that we've done are these monuments."

But legal scholars say placing such a monument on state property is certain to draw a legal challenge over whether it violates the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution. The legal director of the Oklahoma chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union said his group is focused on the Haskell County case, but added: "Obviously, we have a dog in this fight."

Although the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the placement of a similar monument on the Capitol grounds in Texas in the case of Van Orden v. Perry, University of Oklahoma constitutional law professor Joseph Thai says the circumstances surrounding the Oklahoma monument are entirely different.

"The state may be able to clone the physical monument, but it cannot clone the Texas state Capitol grounds or history, where the Van Orden monument sat surrounded by dozens of secular monuments for decades," Thai said in an e-mail. "The controlling opinion of Justice (Stephen) Breyer took pains to emphasize the critical difference that the long history and diverse secular context made in that case."

Thai suggested the circumstances surrounding the Oklahoma monument seem to have more in common with a Ten Commandments display in Kentucky that the nation's highest court ruled unconstitutional on the same day it cleared the Texas monument.

"The state Capitol grounds here only has a few displays, which are unlikely to be found to neutralize the religious message of the proposed monument," Thai said.