Liberties Reporting on First Amendment freedoms

Oklahoma AG: Defense of university chapel a top priority

Religious Liberty | Americans United for the Separation of Church and State wants all religious symbols stripped from the 60-year-old chapel
by Bonnie Pritchett
Posted 7/11/17, 03:12 pm

Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter has stepped into a dispute over the display of Christian emblems on a public university campus, declaring the issue a top religious liberty priority. In a July 5 letter to East Central University’s Board of Regents, Hunter said the fight could have repercussions beyond the ECU campus and asked administrators to refer all future responses to his office.

For 60 years, the Kathryn P. Boswell Memorial Chapel on the ECU campus in Ada, Okla., has hosted a variety of religious services, concerts, and university club meetings, all while a cross stood atop its steeple and Bibles rested in its pews. But according to Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (AU), someone complained that those elements constituted government endorsement of religion. The cross, Bibles, and religious icons “do not belong” on the public university campus and must be removed, AU told university administrators in a June letter.

Hunter called the atheist organization’s demands “scare tactics” and promised to defend the university—and the state—from continued legal threats. ECU administrators initially capitulated and began removing religious items from the chapel before public outcry over the demand forced the school to rethink its response.

“We moved too quickly,” said ECU president Katricia Pierson in a June 30 statement. “We regret not taking time to pause and thoughtfully consider the request and the results of our actions on all of the students, faculty, and community members who we serve.”

Administrators have not said whether they returned the previously removed items to the chapel. But Pierson said the school would convene a committee representing the university’s diverse viewpoints to address the issue. 

In his letter to Mark Stansberry, ECU board chairman, Hunter asked the school to forgo those plans. While lauding the reconciliation efforts, Hunter said AU’s implied legal action against the school requires his office to address the matter. Any action by the committee could have “profound” legal implications for the State of Oklahoma and “similarly situated entities,” he said.

Hunter assured Stansberry that neither the Establishment Clause nor case law require a publicly funded entity to purge itself of features related to religious expression or heritage. He called AU’s tactics “misleading” and noted the group’s “selective” citation of cases decided outside Oklahoma’s jurisdiction.

“The highest priority must be placed on ensuring the defense of Oklahomans’ religious freedom under the law,” Hunter wrote.

Facebook Facebook Members of Cornerstone Church pray over their new land.

This land is your land … but you can’t build on it

A South Texas congregation has won its three-year legal struggle with the town of Bayview for the right to build a church and school. The long legal battle draws attention to a persistent problem churches face when seeking to expand their community presence.

In 2014, Cornerstone Church by the Bay and Laguna Madre Academy purchased land on which it planned to build a new church and school. But an ambiguous zoning ordinance prompted church leaders to ask the town council for a specific zoning permit to begin construction. The council unanimously denied the request and, instead, enforced a city ban on churches and schools in the neighborhood in which Cornerstone had purchased land.

Zoning conflicts between cities and houses of worship are all too frequent, said attorneys with First Liberty representing the church and school. Cornerstone’s case ended with the city finally granting the permit, but the case highlights municipalities’ ignorance of or indifference to the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

Congress unanimously passed the law in 2000 to prohibit government entities from using strict zoning ordinances to prevent land use by religious organizations while holding it out to preferred developers—which usually produce greater tax revenue. —B.P.

Alliance Defending Freedom Alliance Defending Freedom The monuments in the public forum at Bloomfield City Hall.

Decalogue déjà vu

Dispersed around the lawn of the Bloomfield, N.M., City Hall are monuments that bear witness to the influence of writings that have shaped American heritage: the Bill of Rights, the Gettysburg Address, the Declaration of Independence. One of the displays features the Ten Commandments, the subject of repeated legal challenges and conflicting court rulings. 

Now the New Mexico city is asking the U.S. Supreme Court—again—to clarify whether privately funded monuments commemorating the Ten Commandments can remain a part of the city’s “public forum.”

The open space allows the placement of privately funded and maintained monuments that “acknowledge and commemorate the history and heritage of its law and government.” Two Bloomfield residents filed suit in 2012, requesting the removal of the “offensive” Ten Commandments monument. The case eventually ended up at the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled against the city and ordered the display removed.

In their appeal, Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys argued two similar cases produced two different Supreme Court rulings, leaving lower courts confused. The city’s attorneys also contend the complainants have no standing because they have not demonstrated harm. They simply feel offended and “excluded,” the lawyers argue. —B.P.

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Bonnie Pritchett

Bonnie is a correspondent for WORLD. She is a graduate of World Journalism Institute and the University of Texas School of Journalism. Bonnie resides with her family in League City, Texas.

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  • RC
    Posted: Thu, 07/13/2017 02:21 pm

    Oklahoma AG: Defense of university chapel a top priority

    The first amendment says, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

    How does the existence of a chapel on a university campus constitute Congress making a law?

    What religion has been established by the existence of this chapel?

    Has anyone been forced to become a follower of any religion because of the existence of the chapel?

    Don’t waste your time explaining how the first amendment has been stretched beyond the breaking point to justify the crazy deluded ideas of the AU and other mosquito sized groups who think they represent America.  If in 70 years they can only muster a following of 75,000 members they should be embarrassed at their failure to amount to anything.