Late Monday night, a controversial statue of the Ten Commandments was quietly removed from the grounds of the Oklahoma Capitol in Oklahoma City.
“Under cover of darkness” is how the action was described in several news reports, and the Daily Oklahoman reported the timing was deliberate, a response to Highway Patrol fears that daytime removal would attract demonstrations.
The removal, which cost Oklahoma taxpayers $4,700, came off without a hitch or a protest. It took just over an hour to cut away the 2 1/2 -ton granite statue and truck it a few blocks to its new home in front of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, a conservative think tank.
There is much to celebrate in this discreet denouement.
First, the monument’s fate was determined entirely in-state.
The Oklahoma Legislature approved it in 2009.
An Oklahoma legislator’s family paid to have it carved and erected in 2012.
An Oklahoma Baptist minister filed a lawsuit saying its placement at the Capitol violated the Oklahoma Constitution, which prohibits religious displays on state property.
The Oklahoma Supreme Court agreed and ordered it removed, emphasizing the U.S. Constitution did not factor into the ruling.
Second, removing the monument averted the possibility of turning the Capitol grounds into a bizarre carnival of statuary. Several groups petitioned to erect their own monuments after the Ten Commandments was approved, including a Hindu group, an animal rights group, a satanic church that built a 7-foot-tall statue of a goat-headed Satan and, only in America, the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.
Very amusing to ponder, yet not at all in real life. Upholding democracy despite passionate differences demands respect, not farce.
“Under cover of darkness” sounds sinister, but maybe that is where our most passionate feelings about religion belong. Our government has enough problems to solve — the economy, crime and education come to mind — without injecting religion.
Freedom of religion, which Americans of all stripes say they support, means citizens are free to practice whatever religion they want: Islam, Judaism, Satanism or no religion.
It doesn’t mean the government is free to adopt Christianity as its official religion or give it favored status.
When voters and courts push back attempts to link Christianity and government, it is not a war on Christianity. It is a defense of the separation of church and state our country has enjoyed since its founding.
After a very loud few years of people shouting about religion — including my plea in 2014 for an end to discrimination against atheists — maybe it’s time to take our most personal beliefs about faith out of the glare of the public square.
And I’m not just talking about evangelical Christians.
Some atheist groups are spraying gasoline on the fire as well, accusing Christians of believing in “fairy tales” and not understanding science. A billboard in Sioux Falls, S.D., advertising the “SkepDakota” atheist conference depicted Jesus petting a jackalope.
That is just rude. And counterproductive, because it makes some Christians feel attacked, which leads to calls for Ten Commandment statues on public property.
Our country does not need to become more or less Christian, and if it does move in either direction, it does not matter.
The only thing that matters — cue Aretha Franklin — is respect for others’ beliefs, even if we don’t share them. That freedom to not have to think alike is the bedrock of our democracy and it’s worth protecting, as Oklahoma did this week.