A national organization plans to file suit against the city of La Crosse, demanding that it move a Ten Commandments monument from a public park. Some people in La Crosse are willing to fight the case to the Supreme Court. And they just might have to. Federal judges who have ruled on similar cases say displaying the commandments in a public square violates the separation between church and state.
It takes some effort to find the Ten Commandments in Cameron Park. The granite monument stands only about 4-feet tall. Flanked by a bank, a bakery and a food co-op, the park takes up about half a block in the middle of downtown La Crosse.
The monument was originally donated by the Eagles club to honor the city's youth who volunteered during the flood in 1965. It was part of a national effort spurred some 10 years before by Hollywood. Cecil B. Demille came up with the idea of encouraging Eagles clubs to erect Ten Commandments monuments to promote his biblical epic starring Charlton Heston.
Ten Commandment lawn signs are springing up all over La Crosse alongside peonies and geraniums. They're so coveted that there have been reports of stolen yard signs in nearby Galesville.
Some La Crosse residents recently stopped to get groceries across the street from the park and weighed in on the issue.
"I think a lot of time is being wasted," says one resident. "I think it should be moved to a piece of private property."
"I personally would like to see it stay here. I'm a bit upset that a few people from another community can tell us what to do. Unfortunately I know we would probably lose legally," says another.
The Madison-based Freedom From Religion Foundation is counting on that. The group's already been successful elsewhere. When threatened with similar suits, Milwaukee and Monroe promptly moved their monuments.
The La Crosse City Council voted against moving the monument. But council members are considering a compromise. They're deciding whether to sell the 20-by-20-foot piece of land where the monument sits to the Eagles Club.
If the Eagles agree to purchase the land in Cameron Park, they would then put up a fence and a sign showing it was private property. A similar solution worked for Marshfield, Wisconsin.
However, La Crosse resident David Twite doesn't like this solution. He directs Crossfire, a religious-based organization that works with at-risk youth.
"We call it 'caging in the monument,' put up this great disclaimer as if it's radioactive so when you come here with your kids they can say, 'Mommy, Daddy what's so bad about this monument that they have to cage it?'" Twite says.
Twite says the monument should stay because it's a historical symbol. "To deny this nation was founded on Judeo Christian ethic; I don't think we should have to make an apology for that. It has served us well."
Twite says since Sept. 11, some have had renewed faith. He says moving the monument has taken on a larger importance for many people.
In his office, La Crosse Mayor John Medinger has a copy of the U.S. Constitution. It sits on top of his Bible. Medinger would like the monument to be moved to church property.
"If there is a revival of religion, I think that's wonderful; if it's just one religion trying to impose their values on another religious group, that's wrong," he says. "The fact that all these yard signs have appeared in La Crosse - that's fine. That's their right to do that. But I would note those signs are on private property where they belong."
Medinger is no fan of the Freedom From Religion group, but he says trying to keep the monument on public property is a battle that can't be won. He has supported the compromise making a segment of the park private. But would prefer to move it.
Freedom From Religion spokesman Dan Barker doesn't like the compromise. "It's still a religious document. It starts off with, 'I am the Lord your God. Thou shall not have other gods before me.' What in the world does that have to do with honoring flood workers - many of whom were non-believers?" Barker says. "If I was talking to the city, I'd say why don't they do the simple thing and the right thing? Why don't they give it to the Eagles and let the Eagles put it on their private property?"
The foundation's founder, Anne Gaylor, says if the city offers to sell the plot of land to the Eagles, it's only fair to open bidding to others.
"This tombstone should never have been erected in the first place. It puts the city in the ownership of and puts it behind endorsing religion, and government should be neutral in matters of religion. They don't have a Ten Commandments in any church yard in the whole city of La Crosse, yet they want to put it on public property," Gaylor says.
An attorney for the Freedom from Religion Foundation says the group has made an informal offer to buy the property, but the city has indicated it is not interested in selling to anyone except the Eagles Club.
It appears with no one willing to budge, the issue is likely to go to court. And supporters of keeping the monument have said they'll fight it all the way to the Supreme Court.
There's a further complication, however. The LaCrosse residents making the complaint against the monument want to remain anonymous. They say they are worried about harrassment. The Freedom From Religion Foundation says it will file suit. There's a chance the judge could summarily dismiss the suit because the plaintiffs are not named.
National religious based organizations have offered to pay the city's court costs. But Mayor Medinger has turned them down.More from MPR