Judge Orders Statue Fenced (June/July 2000)

A 4-foot wrought-iron fence and two disclaimers must be erected by the city of Marshfield to enclose a shrine to Jesus, according to the decision of U.S. District Judge John Shabaz, in a case brought by the Freedom From Religion Foundation and plaintiff Clarence Reinders of Marshfield, Wisconsin. The Foundation and Reinders sued the city of Marshfield in 1998 over the presence of a 15-foot-tall marble shrine to Jesus at the center of Praschak Wayside Park. A 6-foot statue depicts Jesus on a 5-foot globe on top of a pedestal bearing the words “Christ Guide Us On Our Way.” An additional inscription notes the statue was “erected in the public interest and edification of all who pass by.”

The roadside shrine was given to the city in the 1950s by the Knights of Columbus. A local Protestant minister at the time protested the violation. The Foundation has received numerous complaints about the violation from passing motorists going to Marshfield, site of the region’s medical center. After the Foundation filed suit, the City of Marshfield sold a center bite of the park containing the Jesus statue for $21,560 to a predetermined group that had formed to “save the statue.” Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law & Justice jumped in to represent the city of Marshfield, despite the city’s claim to be a disinterested party. The Liberty Counsel, an ultra-religious right wing group in Florida, entered the fray on behalf of the fund that purchased part of the public park.

Judge Shabaz dismissed the Foundation’s lawsuit, contending the violation had been corrected after the sale of land. The Foundation appealed the case to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago, arguing both that the sale of land was a sham, and that it still appeared as if the statue were on public land. A 3-judge panel this spring agreed with the Foundation’s claim that the city was violating the First Amendment by failing to distinguish the fund’s land from the rest of the half-acre park. “We believe that a reasonable observer . . . would perceive the statue to constitute a city endorsement of religion,” wrote the appeals court.

The court suggested a wall or fence and a prominent disclaimer be erected by Marshfield. When the case was remanded back to Shabaz, the Foundation’s attorney, David Lasker, asked the judge to erect a 10-foot-tall masonry wall. Lasker noted that bushes or a low fence or wall “would highlight the statue the same way a picture frame accentuates a picture. “It would, perversely, draw even more attention to the statue and utterly fail to serve the required function of separating and distinguishing the fund property from city property.”

Lasker had officially objected to an open fence because “to a passing pedestrian, and especially to a passing motorist, . . . [it] would virtually disappear from view, leaving just the statue.” The ACLJ’s Frank Manion and Marshfield responded that a masonry wall would be “nothing less than a stone mausoleum.” The city, in turn, asked the judge to order placement of a 3-foot-tall wrought-iron fence. At a preliminary hearing, Shabaz suggested a 3-foot fence that would not impair the visibility of the shrine’s wording, “Christ Guide Us On Our Way.” Following negotiations, Shabaz issued a June 15 order calling for a 4-foot-tall wrought iron fence. Shabaz also agreed to slightly alter the wording of the sign to read:


“We wish to publicly thank our good-natured plaintiff Clarence Reinders, without whom we would have lacked standing to file a lawsuit. Clarence is a local motel-owner who, despite a lot of heat, has never wavered in his concern to keep church and state separate,” said Anne Gaylor. Clarence Reinders will be named “Freethinker of the Year” at the Foundation’s annual convention in St. Paul in September 2000.

Freedom From Religion Foundation