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Helmut Schmidt, Published February 27 2009

Freethinkers mull options after monument decision

A Supreme Court ruling has the Red River Freethinkers contemplating their next move in getting a monument espousing their beliefs erected next to the Ten Commandments monument standing on Fargo’s Civic Center Mall.

Meanwhile, Fargo officials are happy with the nation’s highest court, which ruled Wednesday that governments can decide what to display in a public park without running afoul of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment.

The Supreme Court ruled unanimously against a Salt Lake City-based religious group called the Summum in a case based on free speech arguments.

The Summum wanted to put a monument with their Seven Aphorisms in a Pleasant Grove City, Utah, park that had 15 monuments, including one with the Ten Commandments.

Freethinkers President Jon Lindgren said Thursday that the Summum arguments were similar to those used by the Freethinkers’ in a lawsuit filed against Fargo in April 2008 in federal court.

Fargo City Attorney Erik Johnson and Lindgren said both sides put the lawsuit on hold to wait for the Summum case ruling.

“It sounds like good news for us. You know, we made the right decision as far as I’m concerned,” Mayor Dennis Walaker said.

Johnson said the ruling indicates Fargo’s decision to deny the Freethinkers’ monument “would be constitutional,” but said city attorneys would study the decision further.

Lindgren said his group has discussed the ruling and will meet with their attorney to decide if they will move on their case.

He said the Freethinkers might abandon the free speech argument and focus on proving their belief that the city’s actions are unconstitutional because they represent government support of a religion.

“We ourselves may proceed based on the Establishment Clause. If we were successful, the city would have to admit the Ten Commandments were there to promote a religion and either move it or allow our monument to stand.”

The Freethinkers in March 2007 approached Fargo with a plan to place a monument near the Ten Commandments inscribed with this statement:

“The government of the United States of America is not, in any sense founded on the Christian religion.

“From the Treaty of Tripoli, approved unanimously by the United States Senate, June 7, 1797. Signed by President John Adams.

“Presented to the City of Fargo by the Red River Freethinkers in recognition of the First Amendment right of every American to believe, or not believe, in any God (plus a dedication date.)”

The final paragraph was later amended to mark the display as a gift to Fargo on the opening of the new downtown public library.

Pleasant Grove City, Utah, rejected the Summum marker, prompting a lawsuit that argued a city can’t allow some private donations of displays in its public park and reject others. A federal appeals court in Denver agreed.

In his opinion for the court, Justice Samuel Alito said a display in a public park requires a different analysis from a typical free speech case. Because those monuments help define a city’s identity, “cities and other jurisdictions take some care in accepting donated monuments,” he said.


Copyright © 2009 The Forum. All rights reserved. AP contributed to this report.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583