States map 2015 for blog

Written by Don Byrd

A referendum on Oklahoma’s November ballot asks voters to remove language from the state constitution that currently prohibits government from supporting churches or religious institutions with taxpayer money. The provision is common among many state laws and offers strong protections against church-state entanglements.

Proponents of State Question 790 point to a 2015 decision of the Oklahoma Supreme Court which cited that section of the law in disallowing a Ten Commandments monument on the State Capitol grounds. Erasing that provision of the law, they argue, would allow such religious displays on government property. And they believe that would be a good thing for religion.

But as the BJC’s Brent Walker pointed out, in a report from NewsOK, religious institutions could jeopardize key religious liberty protections without that provision in place.

“There are already a lot of protections that churches and religious organizations enjoy that I think would be threatened if this were to pass,” said Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, an advocacy group out of Washington.

Religious organizations and churches are exempt from certain discrimination and civil rights laws, but Walker said he worries with the passage of SQ 790 that exemption could end for religious organizations that are able to accept state funds.

“The labor laws of Oklahoma tell privately owned businesses that they cannot discriminate against religion, except for churches,” Walker said. “If we begin to receive funding, there is a possibility we would face lawsuits.

“It’s a really dangerous road we would be headed down.”

For an even more robust religious argument against Question 790, check out the NorthHaven Church blog. NorthHaven is located in Norman, Oklahoma. Pastor Mitch Randall (who is also the co-chair of the Religious Liberty Council) has authored a 4-part series of essays entitled “Keeping Church and State Separate,” outlining the reasons why this measure should be rejected. I highly recommend! Below are links to each essay:

  1. Keeping Church and State Separate: Theological Response
  2. Keeping Church and State Separate: Historical Response
  3. Keeping Church and State Separate: Legal Response
  4. Keeping Church and State Separate: Practical Response

It is exciting to see pastors engaged on this issue, and passionate about articulating the reasons why the separation of church and state is good for both. Kudos Dr. Randall!

As for Question 790, stay tuned – this referendum, and the campaign surrounding it, is a story I will be closely watching between now and election day.