Wisc. Commandments Sale Approved By Appellate Court

A federal appeals court has approved a Wisconsin city’s sale of a Ten Commandments monument along with a portion of the land surrounding it to the Fraternal Order of Eagles.

The Eagles donated the granite monument to La Crosse in 1964 and was granted permission to erect it in a public park. In 2002, the Freedom From Religion Foundation along with two La Crosse residents sued the city seeking removal of the monument. Shortly after the lawsuit was filed, the city council recommended the sale of the monument and a portion of land it resided on. The Eagles eventually paid $2,640 for the land, the fair market value according to the La Crosse assessor. The city and the Eagles erected fences around the monument land indicating it was not government property.

A federal judge, however, ruled in early 2004 that the monument’s place on public land violated the separation of church and state, despite the city’s divesture of it. A panel of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of appeals voted 2-1 to overturn the lower court’s ruling.

The majority opinion in Mercier v. Fraternal Order of Eagles found that the sale did not constitute a scheme to keep the religious symbol on public land without violating the First Amendment principle of church-state separation.

“In this case, the sale complied with Wisconsin state law and the Eagles paid the market rate, as determined by the City Assessor,” Circuit Judge Daniel A. Manion wrote for the court.

Manion also noted the monument was “not located near, or in, any governmental building,” and that residents never had to see the monument in order to conduct business with city officials.