A colorful and at times contentious public comment meeting unfolded last week before a subcommittee of the Capitol Arts and Grounds Commission over the proposed Ten Commandments monument, culminating with Tony Leraris, an architect who serves on the three-person subcommittee determining a location for the monument, exasperatedly telling a speaker that the legislation as passed in 2015 makes the monument a done deal. That led some in attendance to ask whether they had wasted their time and effort in coming to speak to the subcommittee.
Those who spoke in opposition to the monument included several longtime figures in the fight to preserve the separation of church and state in Arkansas, including Rita Sklar, the executive director of the ACLU of Arkansas, who spoke three times; lawyer Anne Orsi; and lawyer Gerry Schulze, who asked the committee to stop the installation of the monument and thus avoid giving him “lots of money” in fees when the inevitable federal lawsuit is decided and the monument is taken down.
The most colorful comments, however, came from rank-and-file Arkansans, including Robert Walker, who identified himself as a retired state employee who works sometimes as a dog sitter. Walker told the committee that as a member of the Arkansas Army National Guard for 23 years, he was one of those deployed to Louisiana following Hurricane Katrina. Working as a medic, Walker said, he was assigned for weeks to an ambulance driven by young woman, who he called his “battle buddy.” In the course of their deployment, Walker said, he learned that not only had she served in Iraq, she was a Wiccan.
“She deployed to Iraq,” Walker said. “She took a weapon and operated there. She served you, she served me, she protected us from our enemies. She was a Wiccan. Now the people in the legislature have decided to mark the state Capitol in a way that I find offensive. It is repulsive, it is offensive, it is slapping her in the face. She served you and me as a combat veteran.”
Toni Rose, who identified herself as with the group America Speaks, spoke in favor of the monument, saying that America is a nation based on Judeo-Christian values. “You can’t deny the fact that Muhammad was not in the room with the Founding Fathers when they were trying to decide how to create the core values that would guide our nation,” Rose said. “They did not read the Koran as direction for the Constitution of the United States of America. I believe the Ten Commandments are as much a historical document to the United States of America as the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.”
Local musician and Arkansas Times contributor Jeremy Brasher began his statement by asking the subcommittee: “Do you want a Baphomet statue? Because that’s how you get a Baphomet statue,” referring to a competing proposal by the Satanic Temple to install a huge statue of the goat-headed god if the Ten Commandments monument moves forward.
Brasher said he has lived less than a half-mile from the Capitol for almost 25 years. He said that Little Rock is racially, economically, politically, culturally and religiously mixed, and erecting the monument would show preference for one religion over another. When he talks to friends about the monument, Brasher said, they often ask why legislators who support the statue don’t build it in their own districts. ”Go build it where your base is!” Brasher said. “Go build it where the people who financed this statue live. Go build it on some private ground in Enola, or Conway, Pickles Gap, or Hindsville or Goshen or wherever. Better yet, build it at your church and keep it there, where religious laws should be — at church.”
Brasher went on to say that the part of the law that claims the erection of the monument should not imply that Arkansas prefers one religion over another is “ridiculously disingenuous.” ”That’s like me putting up a sign that says ‘I’m the best!’ ” Brasher said, “and then me saying, ‘Look, just because I put up a sign that says “I’m the best” and I won’t let you put up a sign saying, “You’re the best,” doesn’t mean you aren’t the best, too!’ “
The sponsor of the religious display, Sen. Jason Rapert (R-Conway), also spoke, telling the subcommittee that their decision is not whether or not the monument should be installed. It’s about finding an aesthetically pleasing place on the Capitol grounds. Rapert said that much of the opposition he’d heard to the monument was “attempt to inject fear and intimidate the commission.” He then quoted from a SCOTUS decision upholding a long-established Ten Commandments monument on the Texas State Capital grounds, in which Chief Justice William Rehnquist pointed out the numerous depictions of Moses, biblical figures and the Ten Commandments in the Supreme Court building and in Washington.
As comments wore on, a speaker who identified himself as Jim Linsley rose to ask the commission what they see as their responsibility, saying: “I hope you’ll listen to what is logical, what’s reasonable, and what will benefit all of the taxpayers.”
As Linsley left the lectern, a clearly exasperated Leraris, called him back, then asked: “Did you not hear what the Senator [Rapert] said about our job? The three of us were appointed to this commission to find a location. We did not vote for this, we did not vote against it. It was done in a prior session, it was signed by the governor. The three of us, plus six others, are on a committee to place this on the Capitol grounds. That is our job. So to sit here and say you need to deny this, you need to deny that, that’s not my job.”
Asked what the goal of the public comment was if there was no chance of changing the outcome, Leraris answered, “Because it is in the laws to have this public discussion, and we’re obligated to show up and listen.” When asked, “To what end?” Leraris replied, “I don’t know.”
“We are one of nine votes [on the full committee],” Leraris said. “We were appointed on this subcommittee for this purpose. This is our fourth trip down there, this is the public hearing. The granite statue has been proposed to us. We know exactly what it’s going to look like, we know exactly where it’s to be placed on the map, [decided] the last time. So we were asked to come down here for a public hearing. I think we’re giving you the time you all are due.”
After more back and forth between Leraris and the speaker, subcommittee member Melonaie Gullnick spoke up to say that it’s incorrect that the hearing was “celebratory,” saying that offering an opportunity for public comment is in Arkansas state law. “Everyone’s comments mean something to us, but we can’t change the law at this point,” Gullnick said.
At that, Schulze came again to the microphone, and reminded the subcommittee that they’d taken an oath to uphold the Constitution.
“That is your obligation,” Schultze said. “If you are being asked to perform an act that violates the Constitution of the State of Arkansas or the Constitution of the United States of America, your oath requires you to refuse to take that act.”