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Duluth's monument fight goes on
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Duluth's Ten Commandments monument sits on the grounds of city hall. (MPR Photo/Bob Kelleher)
Duluth Mayor Herb Bergson today signed a resolution that could result in the removal of a Ten Commandments monument from city property. But the fight is far from over. Residents are circulating a petition asking for a referendum on the issue. The St. Louis County Board is offering to take over the monument, along with the lawsuit against it. And the former mayor is raising money to help pay legal expenses to keep the marker in place.

Duluth, Minn. — The stone tablet sits on a corner just outside city hall. It looks like a bigger version of the one Charlton Heston brought down off the mountain in the 1950s movie "The Ten Commandments". It's one of thousands given to cities around the country when the movie was released. The one in Duluth was a gift from the Fraternal Order of Eagles.

And now some cities around the country are removing these tablets, and similar markers, in the face of lawsuits from civil liberties groups.

The Minnesota Civil Liberties Union filed suit against the Duluth monument last month.

Monday evening the city council was set to decide how to respond to the lawsuit.

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Image Rally

Monument supporters held a rally and prayer vigil before the council meeting. City council president Jim Stauber spoke.

"I find it difficult to believe that there's anything offensive about this monument," Stauber told the crowd of 300. "And suppose this small group of people, uncertain of their stance, is simply trying to validate their nonbelief."

The council voted 5-4 to remove the tablet. But Councilor Roger Reinert asked the mayor to hold off on signing the measure. Reinert wanted to think about it overnight. He ended up deciding to stick to his vote to remove the monument. He says his decision came partly because of the "mean-spirited" calls and e-mails he got from monument supporters.

"It was personal, very offensive, much of it," Reinert said, "and that's not appropriate for any sort of issue."

That's no surprise to Bill Van Druten. He's one of the dozen or so Duluthians who signed on to the MCLU lawsuit. He says someone threatened his life.

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Image Bill Van Druten

"Now here is a religion that proclaims that all other religions are in error and we must believe this religion," Van Druten says. "This is gross arrogance, and not the American way. The American way is that we're free to think about religious matters and form our own opinion. To be religious and also not to be religious. It's a very important American principle."

Tuesday the issue spilled over to another level of government. St. Louis County Commissioner Mike Forsman asked his fellow commissioners to join him in offering to take the fight out of the hands of the city.

"Something to the effect of, 'Why didn't the city of Duluth give us a ten-by-ten spot right under the monument?" Forsman says. "And I personally would be willing to take on the ACLU."

Forsman says the county has a plaque with the Ten Commandments in its Hibbing courthouse, so the county could eventually face a lawsuit anyway. His motion passed 6-0, with one commissioner abstaining.

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Image Ten Commandments monument

A Christian radio network also took up the subject in its Tuesday afternoon talk show. The network encouraged listeners to call Duluth city hall, and city offices were swamped with calls all afternoon. The calls came from all over the country, and tied up the phone lines for the public works department, the police department, and other city offices.

And now, Duluth's former mayor, Gary Doty, has joined the fight. He's heading a group that's planning to raise $20,000. That's how much they think it would cost to go one round in a court battle defending the monument. Doty says he's hearing from the "silent majority."

"When I was mayor I got those calls, from out of town, from the MCLU saying, 'take it down,'" Doty says. "It didn't come from Duluth. Certainly there are some people in Duluth that have signed on and that are part of it, but not very many."

After holding off for 24 hours, Duluth's current mayor, Herb Bergson, signed the council's resolution. Next week the city attorney will meet with MCLU officials to resolve the issue, presumably by taking steps to remove the monument. Bergson says he's spent too much time on the issue in the last couple of days.

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Image Herb Bergson

"What's ironic about this issue is the people who believe in these ten commandments are going to believe if the monument is there or not," Bergson says. "So it would be best to settle, because we've got way too many important matters to deal with in city government."

But any of the five councilors who voted to remove the monument Monday could bring the matter up again next week. With petitions circulating and fundraising calls going out, one or more of them could find a reason to change their position.

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