Ten Commandments monument on state capitol grounds prohibited by Oklahoma Constitution

Note:  Because of its brevity and clarity, the Court’s opinion is reprinted in its entirety (omitting citations).

Prescott v. Oklahoma Capitol Preservation Commission
Oklahoma Supreme Court, June 30, 2015

Oklahoma citizens Bruce Prescott, James Huff, and Cheryl Franklin (complainants) seek removal of a Ten Commandments monument from the Oklahoma Capitol grounds. The monument was a gift from another Oklahoma citizen and was placed on the Capitol grounds pursuant to a Legislative act that was signed by the Governor. While conceding that no public funds were expended to acquire the monument, complainants nonetheless maintain its placement on the Capitol grounds constitutes the use of public property for the benefit of a system of religion. Such governmental action is forbidden by Article 2, Section 5 of the Oklahoma Constitution.

The trial court ruled that the monument did not violate Article 2, Section 5 and entered a summary judgment denying complainants’ request for an injunction. This Court reviews de novo the constitutional issue and the legal question resolved by the summary judgment…..Upon de novo review, the trial court’s ruling is reversed.

In deciding whether the State’s display of the monument in question violates Article 2, Section 5, the intent of this provision must be ascertained….Such intent is first sought in the text of the provision. Words of a constitutional provision must be given their plain, natural and ordinary meaning….

The text of Article 2, Section 5 states:

§ 5. Public money or property – Use for sectarian purposes.

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 plain intent of Article 2, Section 5 is to ban State Government, its officials, and its subdivisions from using public money or property for the benefit of any religious purpose. Use of the words “no,” “ever,” and “any” reflects the broad and expansive reach of the ban….

To reinforce the broad, expansive effect of Article 2, Section 5, the framers specifically banned any uses “indirectly” benefiting religion. As this Court has previously observed, the word “indirectly” signifies the doing, by an obscure, circuitous method, something which is prohibited from being done directly, and includes all methods of doing the thing prohibited, except the direct means…. Prohibiting uses of public property that “indirectly” benefit a system of religion was clearly done to protect the ban from circumvention based upon mere form and technical distinction.

In authorizing its placement, the Legislature apparently believed that there would be no legal impediment to placing the monument on the Capitol grounds so long as (1) the text was the same as the text displayed on the Ten Commandments monument on the grounds of the Texas State Capitol, and (2) a non-religious historic purpose was given for the placement of the monument. To be sure, the United States Supreme Court case of Van Orden v. Perry, 545 U.S. 677 (2005), ruled that the Texas Ten Commandments monument did not violate the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. However, the issue in the case at hand is whether the Oklahoma Ten Commandments monument violates the Oklahoma Constitution, not whether it violates the Establishment Clause. Our opinion rests solely on the Oklahoma Constitution with no regard for federal jurisprudence…. 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.

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.

Oklahoma annexation statute requiring notice by certified mail means what it says

by Hannah Dankbar and Gary Taylor

In re: Detachment of Municipal Territory from the City of Ada, Oklahoma
Oklahoma Supreme Court, March 31, 2015

In February 2013 the City of Ada passed Ordinance No. 13-02 to annex property into its corporate limits. Property owners in this area attempted to set aside the ordinance, but were denied by the City. Petitioners were property owners within the annexed territory.  They filed for a Declaratory Judgment asking the court to nullify the annexation or, in the alternative, to detach their properties from the city.  The basis for the claim was that the city did not comply with 11 O.S. 2011 §21-103, which sets forth the notice requirements for a municipal annexation.  The trial court denied their request and this appeal followed.

11 O.S. §21-103(B)(2) states:

A copy of the notice of annexation shall be mailed by first-class mail to all owners of property to be annexed as shown by the current year’s ownership rolls in the office of the county treasurer and to all owners of property abutting any public right-of-way that forms the boundary of the territory proposed to be annexed and to the Sales and Use Tax Division of the Oklahoma Tax Commission; provided that the notice of annexation shall be mailed by certified mail to every person who owns a parcel of land of five (5) acres or more used for agricultural purposes.

Petitioners alleged the City failed to provide notice by certified mail to owners of property of five acres or more used for agricultural purposes, which abuts the boundaries of the annexed territory. Certified mail “return receipt requested” was sent to all owners of property within the territory to be annexed; however, the City provided only first class mail to abutting property owners of 5 or more acres of agricultural land, despite the use of the mandatory language “shall” in the statute.

The statute reads that “every person” owning five acres or more of agricultural land should receive notice by certified mail. The record clearly shows that the City did not send notice by certified mail to all owners of five acres or more of agricultural land abutting the boundaries of the annexed territory; rather the City used first-class mail.  The certified mail requirement is meant to protect the property owners who are affected by the annexation but are not within the territory. One such owner, Mr. Plumlee, who owns more than five acres of agricultural property in section 14, testified that he did not receive any kind of prior notice of the proposed annexation. If the City had utilized notice by certified mail, it would have been obvious whether City had sent notice to Mr. Plumlee.  According to the court, “one property owner without notice is too many.”  The Court found that the legislature intended nothing less than certified mail for the agricultural owners of five acres or more within the annexed territory.  The trial court erred in disregarding the legislative intent to provide a specific level of notice to specific groups of property owners.

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