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The Ten Commandments: Religious or historical symbol?
By Rob Schmitz
Minnesota Public Radio
September 10, 2001
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In 1986, the city of La Crosse, Wis. was involved in a lawsuit that threatened the removal of a Ten Commandments monument in a public park. The city prevailed and the monument remained, but 15 years later the controversy has returned, spurred by similar cases across the nation. Currently there are nine legal cases challenging Ten Commandments monuments across the country. What some see as a legal violation, others view as a symbol of our nation's roots.

The Ten Commandments monument has been standing in a public park in La Crosse, Wis. since 1965. Its presence on public land has been challenged on the grounds that it violates the separation of church and state.
(MPR Photo/Rob Schmitz)
MUGS TURNER CHECKS ON HER NEW ZINNIAS, PLANTED NEXT TO THE Ten Commandments monument in Cameron Park. She takes care of the monument, and tending to the flowers is a big part of the job.

"Every year we try to put new flowers here. One year we had geraniums, but somebody didn't like it, so they picked them out."

This year, the controversy is over the monument, not the flowers. Standing four feet tall, with the words "I am the Lord thy God" eroding from its weathered, pink and gray granite face, this inconspicuous monument and others like it across the country are at the center of a growing number of local controversies. The monument in La Crosse was donated by the city's Eagles Club in 1965, to commemorate young people who helped out during that year's flood.

A month ago, the Madison, Wis.-based Freedom From Religion Foundation asked the city to remove the monument, claiming it represents government endorsement of religion. After holding a public forum, the city postponed a vote on the issue to research the legal questions. La Crosse Mayor John Medinger says the big question is whether or not the monument violates the establishment of religion clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

"That's what I think I'm struggling with. That's what a lot of people are struggling with - how our oath of office to uphold the Constitution fits with keeping the Ten Commandments in the park," he says.

Medinger admits his research has only made the decision-making process more difficult, because there are believed to be hundreds of similar monuments on public property across the nation.

It all began - in Hollywood.

It's 1956. Director Cecil B. DeMille's epic film "The Ten Commandments" opens across the country. Months before the release, DeMille drummed up publicity for the film by working with E.J. Ruegemer, a Minnesota juvenile court judge and member of the Fraternal Order of Eagles.

In the 1940s, Ruegemer launched a nationwide campaign to post copies of the Ten Commandments in juvenile courts across the country. His goal - to provide a moral foundation for troubled youth. When DeMille caught wind of the idea, he suggested to the judge that they work together to erect granite monuments of the Ten Commandments across the nation. DeMille's goal - to plug a new film. A deal was made.

The Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in December that a Ten Commandments monument in front of the city hall of Elkhart, Ind. had to be removed from public property. Indiana Attorney General Steve Carter has fought back by attempting to erect a limestone Ten Commandments monument in front of Indiana's statehouse in South Bend.

He and the state were taken to court by the Indiana Civil Liberties Union, and in July, the Seventh Circuit upheld a preliminary injunction barring the monument. Carter is currently leading efforts for an appeal, and he spoke with MPR's Rob Schmitz. Listen to an excerpt.
(Photo courtesy of Indiana attorney general's office)
Although there is no official record of how many monuments were erected, numbers range from less than 100 to more than 2,000. The Fraternal Order of Eagles kept the project going long after the film opened, and some monuments didn't get erected until up to 10 years later.

Many monuments went up in public places like parks, city halls, and courthouses. At the time, few questioned their presence on public property. But starting in the 1970s, cases came to light questioning their constitutionality. Last December, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a Ten Commandments monument at the Elkhart, Ind. city hall violated the constitutional separation of church and state. The case sent shockwaves through legal circles, because just four years ago, the 10th Circuit Court ruled - in an almost identical case - that a monument in front of a courthouse in Salt Lake City did not violate the Constitution.

Pepperdine University constitutional law professor Bernard James thinks the time is ripe for the Supreme Court to hear a case, because the divergent opinions about the issue among federal courts are, in his opinion, sending mixed messages.

"One has to consider the possibility that this court simply doesn't know what to do with this kind of case yet," says James. "In some ways, the public is confused enough about the standards, and the local government representatives who are making these decisions are just as confused about these standards - that even a good faith government official that is trying to walk the line is finding the line hard to identify."

In La Crosse, Mayor John Medinger counts himself as one who is having a hard time indentifying that line.

"It seems to me that the Supreme Court of the U.S. would try to rectify that so that there is a unified position, otherwise it leaves people like myself in somewhat of a lurch," Medinger says. "We'd like to uphold the Constitution, but if the federal judges can't even decide what's constitutional and what's not, how are lay people like myself supposed to make an informed decision with as much information as possible?"

The courts' indecision on this issue has left people in many parts of the country engaging in local debates about the meaning of the First Amendment, and how it applies to their communities. La Crosse resident Dee Peacock is bound to the Ten Commandments by her Jewish faith, but she thinks they should not be displayed in a public park. Her stance on the issue has made her feel alienated in her hometown.

"They have said 'You're a commie,' and 'You're a non-believer.' They have felt it was a Christian document, and obviously it was given by Moses to the Jews," says Peacock.

"A lot of people who have arguments don't know their history, and they certainly don't know their Constitution," says Mayor Medinger. "They talk about this being a Christian nation, for example. It never was and it isn't today. That wasn't what our Founding Fathers had in mind, and they show their ignorance of history when they talk like that."

La Crosse resident Lavonia McCarty doesn't agree with the mayor's interpretation of the Founding Fathers' intentions.

"I think there was probably more of a general consensus that it was a Christian nation," she says.

Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of Ten Commandments monuments were erected in cities across the nation in the 1960s, spurred in part by the director of the "Ten Commandments" movie, Cecil B. DeMille. Now the monuments are creating a storm of controversy in many of those cities.
(MPR Photo/Rob Schmitz)
Like most residents of La Crosse, McCarty wants the monument to remain in the park because she sees it as an example of the city's - and the country's - history.

"It's one little monument. It's not a great big tabernacle established in the middle of a park," says McCarty. "This has been here since 1965, and the only time when it has caused any ruckus was when the Freedom from Religion (Foundation) has come in and said 'this isn't right."

The Freedom From Religion Foundation isn't the only group operating in La Crosse from the outside. Mayor Medinger says he's received offers from right-wing groups for no-cost representation if the city decides to allow the monument to remain. But he's leery of his city becoming an ideological battlefield for such groups.

"Why do they want to become involved? Because they have an agenda. I don't want the city of La Crosse to be involved in anybody's agenda. Usually their agendas are very broad. After they save the Ten Commandments, they want to rid the universe of homosexuals, and they want to go onto the next issue," says Medinger.

Whether the mayor wants it or not, the La Crosse case could be a candidate for litigation should the city choose to keep the monument in place. The mayor says many lawyers are interested in this case not only because the Supreme Court has yet to rule on it, but also because of the implications of such a ruling.

For example, if the court rules that such a monument does not violate the Constitution, could local governments then put up similar religious texts in other public places - like schools? Or, if an opposite ruling were handed down, what would be the fate of the depiction of Moses handing down the Ten Commandments in the halls of the Supreme Court?

"I doubt very seriously that the court will announce a rule that will be so restrictive that even it would have to take down the reference to the Ten Commandments in the courthouse," says constitutional law professor Bernard James.

James predicts the court will hear such a case soon, perhaps in the next session. La Crosse's city council will announce its decision - whether to keep the monument in its place or remove it - on September 13.

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