La Crosse Decalog Case Ends in Partial Victory

The U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in late February refused a request by the Freedom From Religion Foundation for a full panel (en banc) review of a decision by its 3-judge panel, approving sale of public land to preserve a Ten Commandments cross as the centerpiece of a park.

The action ends the Foundation challenge, which began in 2002 and revisited a previous lawsuit from the late 1980s. The Foundation was victorious in forcing the city to divest itself of the bible monument, placed by the Fraternal Order of Eagles in 1965 in Cameron Park, La Crosse, Wis.

After the Foundation’s lawsuit was filed, the city, in a sweetheart deal, offered to sell a bite of the public park to the Eagles, who have a building across the street from which they illuminate the monument. The city turned down the Foundation’s request to purchase the same parcel of land, as it had previously turned down offers by the Eagles and a church to move the monument to private property.

The tombstone-like monument remains in the same spot, surrounded by fences and confusing disclaimers” identifying the tiny area as a “private park.”

The Foundation had appealed the 2-1 decision issued on Jan. 3, in which Judges Manion and Kanne ruled in favor of La Crosse.

Appeals Court Judge Bauer, in an indignant dissent, termed the sale of the park a “sham” bordering on “fraud,” comparing the disclaimer to the scene in “The Wizard of Oz” when onlookers are instructed to “pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.”

Judge Barbara B. Crabb at the district level had ruled in the Foundation’s favor twice, writing that the willingness to “carve up a public park to insure that the symbol does not have to be moved” actually “exacerbates the violation.”

The Foundation impressively signed up 21 local plaintiffs, with diverse religious and nonreligious views.

Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor, Foundation co-presidents, extend their thanks to the La Crosse plaintiffs for taking “an unpopular stand and ending the worst violation.”

“We think it is significant that the courts did agree as a result of our lawsuit that a Ten Commandments monument in a public park is unconstitutional,” said Gaylor.

The La Crosse case surfaced several times during oral arguments in March over a Ten Commandments case before the Supreme Court.

“We know this kind of ‘remedy’ will someday be scrutinized by the Supreme Court and that we have a strong case. But we have decided not to ask the Supreme Court to review the decision, due to timing,” Gaylor explained. The high court, which will hand down decisions on two Ten Commandments cases this summer, would be unlikely to accept another Ten Commandments case at this time.

The Foundation submitted friend of the court briefs in both Supreme Court cases.

Seven votes were needed to rehear the case. The five 7th Circuit judges voting to rehear were: Chief Circuit Judge Flaum, and Circuit Judges Rovner, Wood, Evans and Williams.

Freedom From Religion Foundation