Some Oklahoma lawmakers want to build a small chapel in the Capitol to celebrate the state’s “Judeo-Christian heritage,” a potentially divisive move for a Legislature that in recent years targeted Islamic law with a constitutional amendment and tried to bar the leader of a Muslim advocacy group from a law enforcement seminar.
But some civil libertarians and legal scholars question whether such a chapel would be constitutional or improperly endorse one strain of religious thought.
Republican House Speaker T.W. Shannon said several of his GOP colleagues urged him to consider using some newly acquired House space on the second floor of the building to house the chapel, which he said would be paid for with private funds and open to the public.
“The purpose of the chapel would be historical, much like other statues that are there to celebrate history and the contributions of other Oklahomans,” said Shannon, R-Lawton, who added the idea is still in the planning stages. “My focus would be to commemorate the history of the faith community in Oklahoma, and as far as I know, that was a Judeo-Christian heritage.”
The Republican-controlled Legislature in 2010 referred to the ballot a proposed constitutional amendment to prevent courts from considering Islamic, law. Courts later struck it down as unconstitutional. Last month, the head of the House Counterterrorism Caucus tried to keep the head of the Oklahoma chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations out of a police training seminar in the House chamber to which the public had been invited.
The seminar included speakers who believe there is a global conspiracy by Muslim leaders and institutions to overthrow the U.S. government and replace the Constitution with Islamic religious law, or Sharia law.
Adam Soltani, the Oklahoma City Muslim who was told he was not welcome at the seminar, said he supports a chapel at the Statehouse if all faiths are welcome and that his organization would seek to use the space for Islamic prayers.
“We would make a request to hold our Jumu’ah Prayer there on Friday and welcome Muslim people who work around the Capitol and people of all faiths to come and join us in our worship service,” Soltani said.
Former state Sen. Tom Adelson, who is Jewish, said he was skeptical.
“I don’t like the idea,” said Adelson, D-Tulsa. “I just think it’s a general insensitivity to the importance of neutrality in the halls of government, and it’s ironic that evangelicals are pushing this, because they were among the major victims of discrimination in the early days of our country.”
Rep. John Echols, a first-term Republican from Oklahoma City, said he likes the idea if it is privately funded and recognizes all faiths.
“Frankly, as a Christian, I believe it’s a Judeo-Christian value to be tolerant of all faiths,” said Echols, a deacon at a Southern Baptist Church.
While about a half-dozen states have some kind chapel inside their Capitol building, Oklahoma already is being sued over a Ten Commandments monument placed at the Capitol last year, and some members and legal experts question the wisdom of a chapel in a publicly funded building, especially one that focuses a particular faith.
“Installing a sectarian place of worship at the seat of government certainly raises a substantial constitutional risk of establishing religion,” said Joseph Thai, a constitutional law professor at the University of Oklahoma. “It also risks sending message to all citizens of this religiously diverse state that some are insiders and some are outsiders on the basis of religion.”
Florida, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Texas have small, nondenominational chapels or meditation rooms inside the Capitol building. Separate legislative buildings in North Carolina and South Carolina also have chapels.
But whether a chapel is constitutional depends on how it is used, said Brady Henderson, the legal director for the Oklahoma chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which has sued the state over the erection of a privately funded Ten Commandments monument on the Capitol’s north steps last year.
“This sounds like something where different people might have very different ideas of what they want to use it for,” Henderson said. Some of those uses can be completely constitutionally and appropriate, but some of them might potentially not be. It’s going to be one of those things that takes a little time to sort out.”
The space targeted for a chapel is about 12-by-20 feet long and was used as a copy room for the Supreme Court before the space was vacated when the courts moved into the judicial building across the street from the Capitol. The House and Senate divvied up the vacated space and then appropriated an additional $7 million in this year’s budget to pay for improvements to the nearly 100-year-old building, including dozens of new and renovated offices, conference and committee rooms for legislators.