Donated by the Eagles in the 1960s, a Ten Commandments monument sat alone in front of the Flathead County Courthouse in Kalispell, Mont., until 2004. Under threat of legal action, other temporary displays were added, and it was rebranded briefly as an “Evolution of Law” display.
Based on that and a 2005 Supreme Court ruling, the threat of a lawsuit was dropped. In 2005, after a private fundraising campaign by a county commissioner and the Eagles, permanent granite monuments replaced the temporary ones (including the Constitution, Bill of Rights, Declaration of Independence, Magna Carta and the Mayflower Compact).
For some reason (any guesses?), the name of the display was then changed to the “Cornerstones of Law.” During renovations in 2011, the entire display was relocated to, and remains in, a little noticed nook behind the courthouse. As seen in the photo, the Ten Commandments monument is considerably larger and sits in the “cornerstone” position.
In early October, the local Eagles group, dissatisfied with the display’s current location, asked the city of Kalispell to ask Flathead County to transfer the monuments to the city for placement at Depot Park, a prominent city park.
At that time, one city councilor stated, “[The monument] isn’t something we want to hide under a bushel basket.” A county commissioner said, “At first blush, I think it is an excellent idea.” Even the city attorney chimed in, stating, he had no legal concern at all about moving the monuments to city property.
The Flathead Area Secular Humanist Association quickly responded with “assertive” letters of opposition to the county commissioners, city councilors and major local newspapers, along with organizing an opposition email campaign.
On Oct. 22, the council met to discuss the request. Several people spoke in favor of the transfer. I was the sole public voice of dissent at the meeting, speaking on behalf of FASHA (and the law), emphasizing the city’s responsibility to follow the Constitution and to remain neutral when it comes to religion.
Two councilors, while supportive of the request by the Eagles, cited FASHA’s opposition letter and legal concerns in deciding against moving forward. Another councilor was strongly opposed, citing the potential for divisiveness in the community.
The mayor, while stating she “believes” in the Ten Commandments, thought the monument should be moved to private land. In the end, the council decided to not pursue the transfer.
This was a huge success for us. Without our opposition, we would likely have had a religious monument in one of our city parks before year’s end (and an ensuing legal battle). The city council should be commended, especially given the predominantly conservative community we live in.
We feel fortunate for everyone involved that we were able to address this proactively and will closely monitor city and county meetings in the future to counter any future assaults on the First Amendment.
Montana FFRF member Ian Cameron is founder and administrator of Flathead Area Secular Humanist Association (flatheadsecular.com/).