Ten Commandments Display Overruled In Wisconsin

A federal judge in February ordered officials in La Crosse, Wisc., to remove a large Ten Commandments monument from the center of a city park.

The city has been fighting since 1985 to keep the monument in Cameron Park. The Fraternal Order of Eagles (FOE) donated it to the city in the 1960s.

The first lawsuit challenging the monument's placement as a violation of the First Amendment was dismissed on technical grounds. In 2001, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wisc., and 22 La Crosse residents filed another lawsuit in federal court, again, arguing that the public display violated the First Amendment principle of church-state separation. A month after that lawsuit was filed the city sold the monument and the parcel of land underneath it to the FOE, which later installed a fence around the parcel and put up signs indicating the plot of land was now privately owned.

A federal court did not accept the arrangement. Last summer, U.S. District Judge Barbara B. Crabb ruled that the city had violated the separation of church and state by keeping the religious monument on public property and by attempting to prevent its removal by selling a small piece of the park to the Order. But less than a month after Crabb issued that ruling, she vacated it, allowing the FOE to intervene in the case as a party.

In a 47-page opinion issued Feb. 3, Crabb again ruled that the city was in violation of the First Amendment.

"I cannot find any meaningful difference between a city's own display of a religious monument and a city's grant of permission to one (and only one) private group to permanently display the monument in the same location when the monument is still surrounded by city property," Crabb wrote in Mercier v. City of La Crosse and Fraternal Order of the Eagles.

The assistant city attorney told the Milwaukee Journal that the city was disappointed in Crabb's decision but was unsure whether it would file an appeal with the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. TV preacher Pat Roberson's legal group, the American Center for Law and Justice, has said it will file an appeal on behalf of the Eagles.