Ten Commandments: Judge Recognized that We Can’t Have Public Religion: Maureen Freedland

By Maureen Freedland

This article originally ran on the opinion page of the La Crosse Tribune on Feb. 22, 2004. Maureen Fredland is one of the 22 La Crosse residents joining as plaintiffs in the Foundation’s legal challenge.

Judge Barbara Crabb’s recent ruling is a bittersweet victory for me. As a person of religious faith and as one of 22 La Crosse area plaintiff residents who is proud to be part of this community, I care deeply about the rights and religious traditions of all residents, be they in the majority or minority. As public officials and out-of-state organizations have looked for ways to guarantee that only certain expressions of religious faith are allowed and imposed on all others, demands have been made for the plaintiffs to leave the city or even the country. We are told to shut up or worse, and are denounced and ridiculed for fighting for the rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

The controlling facts and the reasons why Judge Crabb ruled as she did will determine the fate of the case on appeal.

First, there is no real connection between the [Mississippi River] flood and the religious monument that was accepted by the city from the Eagles before the flood had even happened. At its installation, a sole member of the Eagles stated merely that it was “dedicated especially to those young people who helped during this spring’s flood.” Only in 2002, after more than 15 years of formal requests to remove the monument, did the Common Council attempt, in a desperate legal maneuver, to tie those events and portray the monument as nonreligious.

The Eagles’ own offer to take the monument back was rejected. Instead, the city passed a resolution authorizing “any and all means available to the city” to keep the monument in Cameron Park. Meaningful suggestions about what to do to relocate the monument to private land were ignored.

The “sale” of the postage stamp-size parcel of land was a sweetheart deal designed to hand it off to the Eagles in order to preserve its location. The city gave unlawful preferred treatment to one religious message over all others by providing it a permanent place within the Park.

Judge Crabb pointed out that the city’s “actions speak louder than its words.” The signs simply highlight the city’s willingness to chop up a public park to ensure that the religious symbol didn’t have to move.

The Marshfield, Wis., case is different because our “sale” was an illegal attempt in bad faith, over many years, designed to sidestep the problem of a religious monument in Cameron Park. Judge Crabb disallowed the sale itself because of the preferential treatment, so any subsequent signage, fencing or other gimmicks were irrelevant and the “Marshfield fix” simply didn’t apply. Also in Marshfield, there was no question whether the sale complied with Wisconsin law governing the sale of public land no longer needed for park purposes, and that it was for a fair price. In Marshfield, the size of the parcel was large enough to reasonably be viewed as an actual separate park.

Other cases have allowed religious objects to stand. But would citizens of this city be prepared to honor requests for park space for the Wiccan Rede, the Affirmations of Humanism, the Five Pillars of Islam or even philosophical codes of extremist groups?

The court warned that even a more comprehensive display would not automatically permit a monument to stay.

Removing the monument from the park is not a violation of the rights of free speech of the Eagles. Each individual or group has the right to private religious expression, but private religious expression is not what this case is about. It is about a government’s complicity and endorsement of one religious tradition over others. It is irrelevant that a specific denomination isn’t named, or that sacred as well as general moral directives are etched on the monument.

This case is also not about hostility or indifference to religion, or about unfairly denying La Crosse citizens the right to express the beliefs of the majority of its citizens. Accusations that our plaintiffs want to take away the rights of Christians to freely worship are way, way off base.

The court has simply directed the city to return to an appropriate religious neutrality. Since the placement of the monument in Cameron Park in 1965, this city has been wrongly endorsing a religious view. Judge Crabb observed that “. . . a government’s ability to provide benefits to a religion is not without limit.”

By adopting the First Amendment, this nation committed itself to the greatest religious freedom possible– to give, without bias, equal concern and respect to the religious or nonreligious aspirations of all its citizens, and not just those in the majority or with the most political clout.

Judge Crabb correctly saw that our city committed itself to maintaining this monument as an expression of the majority religious viewpoint when there were other available legal solutions. The city of La Crosse endorsed one religious viewpoint by its actions. The city was terribly wrong. Judge Crabb is on solid ground, and it is time to remove the monument to private land.

“I am a volunteer attorney representing poverty clients in housing, public benefits, and civil matters. I was recognized as the 1999 Pro Bono Attorney of the Year by the Wisconsin State Bar Association. In the 1980s, as a young state assistant attorney general in Louisiana, I helped to defend that state’s ‘Balanced Treatment of Creation Science and Evolution Science’ Act that applied to the public schools. The U.S. Supreme Court eventually ruled that it was religion, not science. My interest in church/state issues stems from the history of my parents as Holocaust survivors.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation