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This Week in God, 5.3.14

First up this week is a story out of Oklahoma, where officials were so eager to promote religious displays, they created a forum with unintended consequences.
The cast model for a proposed monument for Satanists for the Oklahoma State Capitol.

A statue at the center of a dispute between Satanists and Oklahoma officials is nearing completion, but the Satanists are no closer to installing the monument at the Oklahoma State Capitol after months of planning. The New-York based Satanic Temple has been campaigning to insert a seven-foot statue of Satan on the north steps of the Capitol since December, next to a Ten Commandments monument that was placed there in 2012. Officials in the conservative state sometimes referred to as the "buckle of the Bible Belt," have said the proposal is unlikely to be approved, with Oklahoma state Rep. Earl Sears calling the plan "an insult to the good people of the state."

As we last discussed in December, Republican policymakers in Oklahoma authorized a Ten Commandments monument, paid for using private funds, to be placed on the capitol grounds. This led a Satanic group to an understandable assumption: Oklahoma's capitol grounds are now an open forum for privately funded religious displays -- and they want equal treatment.
In this case, the $20,000 Satanic monument on the grounds of the Oklahoma state capitol would, like the Ten Commandments display, be privately financed. Taxpayers wouldn't pay a dime -- all the Satanic Temple would need is comparable public space provided by the state legislature for the Christian monument in 2009.
This week, the Satanic group announced it had raised $30,000 and unveiled a mock-up of what the statue would look like. If Oklahoma officials balk -- and believe me, they will -- litigation is very likely inevitable, and the Satanists will have a reasonably strong argument.
The underlying principle is simple: in an open forum, the government can't play favorites. If the government is going to devote space to promoting one religious monument, celebrating the tenets of one faith, it can't deny space to other religions that expect equal treatment. Indeed, it's easy to imagine the Oklahoma state capitol reserving space for everyone: Baptists, Buddhists, and the Baha'i; as well as Sikhs, Scientologists, and Satanists.
There are, after all, no second-class Americans citizens when it comes to the First Amendment. If one group has the right to erect a monument, so does everyone else.
State officials who aren't happy about these developments probably should have thought this through before. They opened the door, and it's going to get crowded as others walk through it.
Also from the God Machine this week:
* The United Church of Christ filed suit in North Carolina this week, challenging the state's ban on marriage equality, but their argument comes with a twist: "Like dozens of marriage equality suits that have come before, this case -- United Church of Christ v. Cooper -- cites the constitutional rights to equal protection and due process under the Fourteenth Amendment, currently denied to gay and lesbian couples who wish to marry in North Carolina. But what makes the suit unique is its charge that the state's marriage law also violates the First Amendment's guarantee to freedom of religion -- something typically used in arguments against LGBT equality, not for it."
* Rep. Janice Hahn wanted to hear Billy Graham's daughter speak at Thursday's National Day of Prayer event on Capitol Hill this week, but the California Democrat was so disgusted with James Dobson's partisan tirade that Hahn "stormed out of the room before that portion of the program could get underway."
* A definite no-no: "Rev. Mark Harris, one of the eight Republicans competing for the nomination in the North Carolina Senate race, didn't report donations from speaking events at church events as campaign donations. That may put Harris in campaign finance hot water."
* And an interesting story out of Georgia: "Georgia's Catholic and Episcopal churches are opting out of the state's new expanded gun law. Among other things, the expansive legislation signed by Gov. Nathan Deal (R) last week bans weapons from places of worship but gives religious leaders the authority to make exceptions to that ban for licensed gun owners. In the days since it was signed, senior religious leaders in the Catholic and Episcopal communities in Georgia have vowed not to allow such exceptions" (thanks to my colleague Tricia McKinney for the heads-up).