Arkansas Ten Commandments Monument Resurrected On Uncertain Legal Ground

Apr 27, 2018

State Sen. Jason Rapert (R-Bigelow) standing presiding over the unveiling of the state Capitol's new 10 Commandments monument.
Credit Jacob Kauffman / KUAR

A new Ten Commandments monument has been installed on the grounds of the Arkansas State Capitol. It comes nearly a year after an identical monument was destroyed. 

Last June, a mentally ill man deliberately drove his car into the 6,000-pound granite tablet less than 24 hours after it was erected. Michael T. Reed II had destroyed a similar monument in Oklahoma back in 2014.

State Senator Jason Rapert shepherded the authorization of the Arkansas monument in 2015. Today, he presided at the unveiling of its replacement.

It was approved by the state legislature but is privately funded and donated by the American Heritage and History Foundation. Sen. Rapert is the organization's president.

Rapert contends the monument is being erected to recognize the Ten Commandments' influence on the American legal system and not as a testament to religion. 

"The sole reason that we donated this monument to the state of Arkansas is because the Ten Commandments are an important component to the foundation of the laws and the legal system of the United States of America," Rapert said.

Rapert contends the monument is being erected to recognize the Ten Commandments' influence on the American legal system and not as a testament to religion.
Credit Reuters

However, a number of groups are planning legal action. The American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas plans to file suit, contending it violates the establishment clause's separation of church and state.

"Not only are we concerned that it's unconstitutional, but it's just un-American to put up something that is divisive and tells some Americans that they are second class citizens," said Holly Dickson, the legal director for the ACLU in Arkansas.  

Sen. Rapert said the ACLU's lawsuit is "an attempt to undermine the historic ideals foundational to our common heritage." 

Religion is at the heart of the display for some of those who attended the dedication ceremony. Jerry Cox of the Little Rock-based group the Family Council - whose mission statement says the group is "promoting, protecting and strengthening traditional family values found and reflected in the Bible by impacting public opinion and public policy in Arkansas" - said the monument has a dual meaning for him. 

"It's part of the Bible and as Christians we believe the Bible is the inherent word of God. So that's really important to us and to lots of other people. But, on another level, one would be hard-pressed to find any written document that is more central and more basic to everything we are in Western civilization," Cox said.

Other groups are interested in legal action as well, including the non-theistic political advocacy group the Satanic Temple and the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers.

Lucian Greaves, the head of the Salem, Massachusetts-based Satanic Temple, sees religion in the monument, too. He says he thinks Rapert's defense that the monument reflects secular, legal history does not make sense. 

"Even if people agree with the Ten Commandments and they hold them sacred, they should be offended that they are being presented as a mere legal document at this point in order to try to keep them on the grounds," Greaves said.

Rather than asking for the monument to come down, Greaves will instead ask for a monument to Baphomet, a winged goat-headed figure. Baphomet is the name of a false god associated in times past with the Knights Templar and today with Satanism and the occult.

Meanwhile, the Arkansas Association of Freethinkers wants to erect a wall of separation monument. 

"We are of the mindset that this is a relgious monument. If our government is going to remain constitutional and be secular, it's an all or nothing proposition. So if Mr. Rapert paved the way for religious monuments, he did it for all of us," said Leawood Thomas of the Association.

The private law firm The Liberty Institute has pledged to pay for the costs of defending the monument in court, rather than having the state do it.