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Patrick Springer, Published May 06 2009

Red River Freethinkers renew monument debate

The case to banish the Ten Commandments from the mall outside Fargo City Hall has been resurrected.

The Red River Freethinkers have modified their lawsuit after a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

Justices decided that governments can decide what forms of speech they can display in a public park without violating the First Amendment.

In the revised lawsuit, filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Fargo, the Freethinkers argue that the Fargo City Commission’s decision two years ago to keep the monument transformed it from secular to religious expression.

“It’s the city’s speech now,” said Bruce Schoenwald, the lawyer representing the Freethinkers.

The dispute dates back to 2007, when the Freethinkers proposed placing a companion monument near the Ten Commandments.

The Freethinkers’ monument would include this statement: “The government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”

In response, the Fargo City Commission voted to donate the Ten Commandments monument to a private group for display, therefore ending the controversy.

But monument backers collected 5,265 petition signatures on an initiated ordinance to keep the Ten Commandments on the mall. The ordinance would prohibit removing any marker or monument on city property in place 40 or more years.

The Ten Commandments monument, donated by the Fraternal Order of Eagles, was placed on the mall 48 years ago.

Ultimately, city commissioners reconsidered their decision to remove the Ten Commandments and adopted a new policy of not accepting any new monuments for the mall.

By keeping the monument, the Freethinkers argue, the city gave it an “overt religious purpose.”

The city of Fargo agreed to allow the Freethinkers to amend their lawsuit, but continues to oppose the legal challenge, City Attorney Erik Johnson said Tuesday.

The city will file a new answer, he said, to counter the allegations in the Freethinkers’ suit.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522