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La Crosse will appeal Ten Commandments ruling
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A LaCrosse resident who wants a Ten Commandments monument to stay where it is. (MPR Photo/Erin Galbally)
The La Crosse City Council plans to appeal a recent court decision calling for the removal of a Ten Commandments statue. The decision came a special session Tuesday evening. The monument was dedicated to the city of La Crosse back in the 1960s by the Eagles Club. It's sat on the same patch of public land ever since. Two years ago the monument became a source of controversy when the city was sued by an organization arguing the statue violates the separation between church and state. Now it's likely the case will advance on to a federal court of appeals in Chicago.

La Crosse, Wis. — Last month a U.S. District Court judge delivered a lengthy ruling against the city of La Crosse. Judge Barbara Crabb's decision ordered the city to remove a Ten Commandments monument from its decades old spot in a public park. Crabb called the monument's current location a violation of the separation of church and state. Her ruling found in favor of the Madison-based Freedom from Religion Foundation, who recruited 22 local plaintiffs.

But last night's overwhelming vote by the La Crosse City Council indicates there are plans to fight the ruling. Council member Bruce Ranis was among those pressing for an appeal.

"I think this has been a historical item here since around 1965," Ranis said to council members prior to a vote. "I don't think anyone has been harmed greatly. In fact many people asked not too long ago - where is this? Where is this? How come I've never seen it?"

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Image Lawn signs in LaCrosse have shown people's support for the city's religious monument.

When a vote was finally taken Ranis got his wish. The motion to appeal passed 15 to 2.

Audience members favoring an appeal screamed with joy when the vote was read. The group carried banners quoting Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and U.S. Supreme Court in an effort to urge the council to continue litigation. A teary eyed Sheri Laufle held her own hand lettered sign. Laufle says she feels relieved.

"I'm happy," said Laufle, her voice wavering. "I'm happy we're appealing. I don't think this is a monetary issue."

But not everyone's happy about the decision to appeal. Prior to the vote La Crosse Mayor John Medinger warned council member's debate over the statue has divided the community. He cautioned an appeal would make matters worse. Medinger also voiced concern about mounting legal fees, particularly as the city prepares to layoff workers.

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Image LaCrosse Mayor John Medinger

Afterward Medinger said the debate has turned ugly. He said he's concerned those who favor the statues removal have been intimidated.

"You know when you're called all these horrible things you think you're a pretty good person, you think you're a religious person," said Medinger. "But when someone suggests you're dancing with the devil and you're going straight to hell, usually you shut up."

Hank Zumach is one of the lead plaintiffs involved the case. He declined to attend the city council meeting out of fear for his personal safety. At his home just outside of La Crosse, Zumach said the statues' current location is out of step with freedoms assured in the U.S. Constitution.

"Our system of government does recognize the importance of the majority but it also recognizes the importance of the minority in items such as the separation of church and state or the imposing of your religious beliefs onto other people," explained Zumach. "But a lot of these people that are supporting the monument simply don't understand that concept."

Zumach doubts the city could prevail in an appeal. That sentiment is shared by close to three-dozen local lawyers who urged the council not to pursue legal action. They argue an appeal of Judge Crabb's ruling is virtually un-winnable.

La Crosse Mayor John Medinger says he'll decide whether or not to veto the city council vote today. Any veto could be overridden by a two-thirds city council vote.

Similar cases are being heard around the county including Alabama, Indiana and Pennsylvania. So far court rulings have come down on both sides of the issue.

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