Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled last week that a state-sponsored Ten Commandments monument on the Capitol grounds violates the state Constitution. It wasn’t a close call – the justices ruled 7-2 that the six-foot-high, stone Christian display is at odds with the law that requires state government to be neutral on matters of religion.
The more controversial twist came this week, when Gov. Mary Fallin (R) and the GOP-led legislature announced they’re prepared to ignore the state Supreme Court, at least for now, while they consider new solutions.
The Republican governor talked to reporters, saying roughly what you’d expect her to say: she’s “disappointed” with the court’s decision; she thinks they made the wrong call; etc. But as KFOR, the NBC affiliate in Oklahoma City, reported, Fallin added one related thought that wasn’t expected at all:
Gov. Fallin said she believes the final decision on the monument’s fate should rest with the people.“You know, there are three branches of our government. You have the Supreme Court, the legislative branch and the people, the people and their ability to vote. So I’m hoping that we can address this issue in the legislative session and let the people of Oklahoma decide,” she said.
The KFOR report added, “Despite what the governor said, the three branches of government include the legislative, executive and judicial branches.”
It was obviously an unfortunate slip-up, but the point isn’t to just laugh at a politician’s gaffe. There’s actually a substantive angle to all of this.
We can certainly hope that Fallin, a former multi-term member of Congress, knows what the three branches of government are. Indeed, in Oklahoma, she’s the head of one of them – the one she left out this week.
But what matters in this controversy is the governor’s appreciation for the branches’ specific duties. For example, it’s up to Oklahoma’s judicial branch to rule on constitutional questions, such as whether the state can legally endorse one religion’s sacred text.
It’s up to Oklahoma’s executive branch to enforce the law. For now, the governor has decided she doesn’t want to, at least in this case.
Fallin suggested that she’d like “the people” to “decide” what’s constitutional. The problem with such a remedy, aside from the confusion over civics, is that civil liberties shouldn’t necessarily be open to popularity contests. That’s largely the point of having rights and the Constitution in the first place – the goal is to enshrine certain protections for the public that cannot easily be taken away without due process.
It’s unfortunate that Fallin flubbed the details when trying to describe the three branches of government, but it’s arguably worse that she’s falling short in her most basic of governmental responsibilities.