Marshfield Jesus Statue Unconstitutional (March 2000)

A three-judge panel of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals issued a ruling on Feb. 4 agreeing with part of the claims of the Freedom From Religion Foundation that Marshfield, Wisconsin, is illegally entangled with a Catholic shrine.

The appeals court ruled that a statue of Jesus Christ standing on newly-created private land surrounded by a city park still violates the law, since reasonable people would assume the statue is on city property. The Foundation went to court in 1998 over the 14-foot shrine, donated by the Knights of Columbus in 1959, showing Jesus on an elevated globe with the words “Christ Guide Us On Our Way.” The Jesus statue has been the centerpiece of the public park facing a busy highway for 40 years. Shortly after the lawsuit was filed with the indispensable help of Marshfield plaintiff and Life Member Clarence Reinders, the city sold off a central bite (0.15-acres) of public property for $21,726 to a group of citizens which formed to “save the statue.”

The Foundation contended this was a sweetheart deal and a sham sale, with city officials conspiring to maintain the Catholic statue in the same prominent spot, with no open bidding. A federal judge agreed the statue was illegal on public land, but ruled that the city’s sale of land under the statue satisfied the law. The Foundation appealed to the 7th Circuit. The 7th Circuit rejected the Foundation’s argument that the land deal was illegal. However, it said the fact that there is no change of appearance could lead “a reasonable person to conclude that the statue is a part of the public park and that the government, rather than a private entity, endorses religion,” wrote Circuit Judge Michael Kanne, joined by Justices Cudahy and Easterbrook. The court suggested a fence or wall be erected with a disclaimer making clear that the shrine in Prashak Wayside Park is owned by a private group. The case was remanded back to the federal judge. The rightwing Christian Liberty Counsel, which is representing the city of Marshfield, has filed a pro forma motion asking the 7th Circuit to hear the appeal en banc.

“This clear violation of the Establishment Clause was continuing despite a real estate transaction that nobody would have any reason to know about unless they were looking over the fine print of a document at the register of deeds,” said David Lasker, the attorney who represented the Foundation’s appeal. “We remain concerned that government officials are selling off the public’s real estate in order to maintain Christian symbols at prime locations,” commented Foundation president Anne Gaylor, “and are disappointed that the court blessed this arrangement. However, we are pleased that the panel reaffirmed that Jesus statues cannot remain on public property, or have the appearance of being on public property.” Excerpts of the strong appeals court ruling can be found on pages 8-9 of this issue. Page maintained by Dan Barker and hosted by the Internet Infidels.

Freedom From Religion Foundation