Many local governments are starting to "Honor Thy First Amendment" instead of endorsing the First Commandment.
Symbolizing that change is a recent agreement initiated by the Freedom From Religion Foundation with the City of Milwaukee.
Following years of negotiation, the Foundation has persuaded Milwaukee officials to avoid a losing lawsuit by removing a Ten Commandments monument installed at the Municipal Building circa 1957.
The presentation of the tombstone-like decalog in Milwaukee was the kick-off of a national campaign by the Fraternal Order of Eagles, working in cahoots with "Ten Commandments" movie director Cecil B. DeMille, to erect the granite bible monument in as many public locations as possible.
"It is significant that the first such Ten Commandment Eagles monument ever placed on public property will be removed, in deference to the constitutional separation of church and state," said Anne Gaylor, president of the Foundation, a national watchdog association based in Madison, Wis.
"It is a harbinger of change. Courts around the country finally are acknowledging that the sacred text of one religion does not belong on public property.
"The First Commandment alone makes it obvious why government may not endorse these bible edicts. Citizens may worship whatever god they like, as many gods as they like, or none at all!" added Gaylor.
The Ten Commandments monument was presented to Milwaukee Mayor Frank P. Zeidler by Judge E. J. Ruegemer, chair of the Eagles' National Youth Guidance Commission, at the International convention of the Fraternal Order of Eagles meeting in Milwaukee in 1955. The decalog dedication included an appearance by actor Yul Brenner.
In recent years the Ten Commandments marker has rested on a grassy plot by the Market Street entrance to the Municipal building.
Several years ago, the Foundation negotiated an agreement with the City of Milwaukee to remove the monument, if an appeal out of Indiana involving similar circumstances were lost.
In December 2000, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago, which presides over Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin, ruled that an Eagles Ten Commandments monument at an Indiana city hall was illegal.
Last May, the Supreme Court let stand that 7th Circuit ruling (Elkhart v. Books, May 29, 2001).
Milwaukee officials agreed last July to remove the monument. The resolution finally went before the city council on Jan. 22, which voted to abide by the city attorney's advice.
Bolstering the move to divest government property of Ten Commandment markers was a more recent action by the U.S. Supreme Court. On February 24, the high court let stand another recent ruling by the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals barring Indiana Gov. Frank O'Bannon from placing a Ten Commandments marker in front of the Indiana State Capitol.
The bible edict is expected to be removed from the Milwaukee Municipal Building sometime in April, once the ground has "thawed," according to a spokeswoman at city hall. The monument will be returned to the Eagles, which will likely place it in front of a private hospital.
In related news, a federal court in Nebraska in February ordered removal of an Eagles Ten Commandments marker from a public park in Plattsmouth.
In March, a federal court in Philadelphia ruled that a Ten Commandments plaque on a county courthouse is impermissible, in a case brought by a Foundation chapter.
The Foundation is revisiting its legal challenge of a Ten Commandments monument donated by the Eagles to the City of La Crosse, Wis., in the 1960's. The Foundation's federal challenge of the monument in a public park in the mid-1980's was dismissed after trial on a technicality.
In March, La Crosse Mayor John Medinger, who had promised to fight to keep the monument, wrote a guest editorial for the La Crosse Tribune recommending that the city remove it to avoid a losing lawsuit. No action has been taken yet by the La Crosse city council.
The Foundation has also renewed its request that the City of Monroe, Wis., remove a monument donated by the Eagles, which is the centerpiece of its public park.