Commandments Case Goes to 7th Circuit (September 2003)

The Freedom From Religion Foundation’s federal court victory ordering removal of a Ten Commandments monument from a public park in La Crosse, Wis., is being appealed to the 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.

The city council on Aug. 12 voted 15-2 to appeal the case, at a meeting crammed with religious pickets, singing gospel songs.

Mayor John Medinger vetoed the decision on Aug. 13, deeming the court order “constitutionally correct.” He warned of the expense: “there is no free lunch or free attorneys either.” Medinger called the vote “a step in the wrong direction.”

He was hastily overridden by another 15-2 vote the following day. Voting both times against the appeal were Larry Lebiecki and Marilyn Wigdahl.

Thirty-four area attorneys and one judge had submitted a letter advising the city to drop the case, saying it has scant chance of success in the appeal.

“There hasn’t been a lawyer who has read the decision that thinks it would succeed on appeal, and when is the last time lawyers ever agreed on anything?” asked signer Keith A. Belzer at a press conference.

Additionally, 36 religious and community leaders signed their own letter urging the common council not to appeal. Leading the signators were the Administration of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration; Bishop April Ulring Larson of the La Crosse Area Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, two priests with the Diocese of La Crosse, and the pastor of a First Congregational United Church of Christ.

“We not only have a legal victory in La Crosse,” said Foundation president Anne Gaylor, “but a moral victory. We are very grateful not only to our 22 brave local plaintiffs, but to the mayor, and for the groundswell of support for the ruling and the separation of church and state by so many thoughtful and diverse residents.”

A member of the La Crosse County Republican Party handed out brochures promoting an appeal, while the La Crosse Democratic Party officially supported removal.

The strong 41-page ruling by Federal Judge Barbara Crabb has dominated headlines and letters to the editor in the La Crosse Tribune since being handed down on July 14.

In July 2002, 22 local plaintiffs and the Foundation challenged city support of the tombstone-like Ten Commandments monument, donated in 1965 by the Fraternal Order of Eagles. After the lawsuit was filed, the city sold a tiny bite of the small park to the Eagles, which merely fenced the monument.

Judge Crabb called the sale unconstitutional because its only purpose was to promote religion.

After the decision, Christ Episcopal Church on Main Street had offered to provide a permanent home to the monument. The minister also offered to invite the Foundation plaintiffs to participate in a formal procession moving the monument from the park to the church. Trinity Luthern Church also offered to take the monument.

The Foundation is contesting a motion by the American Center for Law and Justice, evangelist Pat Robertson’s legal arm, asking to intervene in the ongoing lawsuit.

Freedom From Religion Foundation