Milwaukee Moves Ten Commandments to Private Property (May 2002)

It’s two down . . . and at least one more to go in Wisconsin. The City of Milwaukee on March 27 removed a Ten Commandments monument that has been displayed outside its Municipal Building since the mid-1950s–the culmination of a long-standing complaint by the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

That action was followed by an April 3 vote of the city council in Monroe, Wis., to move its nearly identical Ten Commandments monument from Lincoln Public Park, also at the urging of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. The city of Monroe will donate the bible edicts to the Green County Family YMCA in June. Milwaukee returned the tombstone-like monolith to the Fraternal Order of Eagles which, in donating it in 1955, kicked off a campaign to place the religious monument on public property around the country. “It’s satisfying to see government officials who ‘Honor Thy First Amendment,’ instead of misusing government resources to promote the intolerant First Commandment,” noted Foundation spokesperson Dan Barker, who was present during the removal.

Barker congratulated city officials for having the courage to do the right thing, and avoid a costly losing lawsuit. Several Milwaukee alderpersons were present and made speeches at the removal, including Jeff Pawlinski, who said: “I regrettably sponsored the resolution to return the Ten Commandments to the Eagles . . . because the City of Milwaukee faced a lawsuit by the notorious Freedom From Religion Foundation.” Pawlinski, who said the monument honored the “values and tenants [sic] that the Ten Commandments so properly represent,” called it “unfortunate” that the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court agree with the Foundation that it is unconstitutional for the government to endorse and promote one “holy book’s” teachings.

A representative of the Eagles club was spotted crying as the 1-ton monument was loaded onto a truck transporting it to its new resting place, St. Joseph’s Hospital, Milwaukee. The Eagles gave Milwaukee the monolith in 1955 during an Eagles national conference there, the debut donation of the granite bible markers in a campaign waged by the Eagles and “Ten Commandments” director Cecil B. DeMille. “Ten Commandments” actor Yul Brynner spoke at the Milwaukee dedication. On behalf of its several members in Monroe, Wis., the Freedom From Religion Foundation persuaded Monroe to also divest itself of the biblical marker, which was donated by the Fraternal Order of Eagles 30 years ago. The decalog, the only monument in the park, stands directly by the official city park sign.

“This will put the matter at rest because the monument will be on private property and not city property,” said Monroe Mayor Bill Ross. The U.S. Supreme Court in February let stand a ruling by the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago barring placement of a Ten Commandments monument on the statehouse grounds in Indiana. Last May, the high court similarly let stand a decision by the same appeals court against a Ten Commandments marker in front of a public building in Indiana.

The 7th Circuit ruling is controlling in Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana, although it has created nationwide interest. Still pending is the Foundation’s longest-standing complaint over a Ten Commandments monument in Wisconsin–an Eagles monument standing in Cameron Public Park, La Crosse. Last summer, the Foundation advised La Crosse it would go back to court if the city did not divest itself of the religious marker. The La Crosse city council voted on April 17 to table a resolution by the mayor to divest the city of the monument. After three hours of debate, the council voted 14-4 to investigate all resources for a legal fight with the Foundation over the monument, placed in the 1960s. Council member David Morrison, one of the four voting against the resolution, said: “I believe the federal courts, not the Freedom From Religion Foundation, are forcing us to take [the monument] up. This has been fought, and it is incumbent on us to do what the federal courts have said.”

“This is God’s country, and we should keep it that way,” said pro-Commandments council member John Satory. A representative of the Liberty Counsel flew up from Florida, vowing: “We will fight all the way to the Supreme Court at no cost.” The Foundation was represented at the hearing by attorney Robert Dreps, who said: “This is not about religion or who is in the majority.

No objective observer of the courts will tell you that you will win this fight if you pick it.” Several La Crosse residents also urged the council to remove the decalog. La Crosse Mayor John Medinger, who originally opposed the Foundation’s request, wrote a column appearing in the La Crosse Tribune on Feb. 28 (“Commandment marker violates Constitution”) urging the city council to move the bible monument to private property: “As most people know, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Madison-based group, has threatened to sue the city if we don’t voluntarily remove this monument. They charge that it violates the Constitution of the United States. And surely, as they have other places, they will follow through on their threat. And, with the help of the highest courts in this country, they usually have been successful,” wrote Mayor Medinger.

“In this great country we do indeed have freedom ‘of’ religion but we also have freedom ‘from’ religion. . . . The Ten Commandments can be publicly displayed anywhere in this city as long as it is on private property.” Medinger continued: “I have become convinced that the continued presence of this monument in a public park violates the Constitution of the United States and should be removed. . . . If you ask some local elected officials if they think the monument is unconstitutional they will whisper, ‘Yes, but the people will crucify me if I vote to remove it.’ Then we must ask them about their sworn oath of office. Does it mean nothing? “. . . Finally, at this time in our country’s history, it is important that we fight extra hard to preserve what has now lasted more than 200 years. Our precious freedoms must not be lost or the terrorists will have won!” He sponsored the tabled resolution calling for the removal of the decalog.

La Crosse resident Jeff Fluekiger, who presented the council with 4,000 signatures in favor of keeping the monument on government property, urged La Crosse to unite with religious-right groups who have offered to help defend the entanglement. “They have long agendas,” Medinger told the Tribune. “They want to establish the U.S. as a Christian nation; they are against homosexuals, against abortion. I am not even saying I disagree with some of their stuff, but there is no free lunch. These are people like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. I do not want them representing La Crosse. If this is a Christian nation, how can Wisconsin have two Jewish senators?” he asked.

Adding another wrinkle to the controversy was the parsimonious offer by the Onalaska Masonic Lodge No. 214 to pay $10 for a section of Cameron Park on which the monument stands. “We consider it to be a good deed for the community,” said Mason Ronald Espe. “It bothers us that an atheist organization would think they would have the power to force the majority of the people to get rid of something they want.” That offer resulted in a tongue-in-cheek letter to the editor printed by the Tribune in March suggesting the city “sell small parcels of the park to private individuals”: “There might be some small, easily resolved problems. No nude or partially nude statues would be permitted.

Some Washington prudes might feel obligated to protect the morals of the citizenry. And the last thing we want is more government interference. Atheists would not be permitted to own a parcel. Because they have no religion, they’ve have nothing to display anyway.” The Freedom From Religion Foundation originally sued for removal of the La Crosse monument in federal court in the 1980s, and lost on a technicality, not the merits. In June 1988, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a 1987 ruling by a federal court that La Crosse resident Phyllis Grams, the plaintiff and a Foundation member, was not injured by the presence of the marker and therefore lacked legal standing.

This should not affect the outcome of a new challenge. See additional article, “‘Nod to God’ Politicians and the Ten Commadments.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation