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Published April 21 2010

Freethinkers, Fargo argue over marker

Attorneys for Fargo and the Red River Freethinkers argued in U.S. District Court on Tuesday over whether a lawsuit regarding the city’s Ten Commandments monument should be dismissed.

The city of Fargo asked a federal judge in July to throw out the lawsuit due to a lack of merit.

The Freethinkers, who oppose the downtown monument near the Fargo Civic Auditorium, filed a lawsuit in 2008, claiming the city gave the monument a religious purpose in voting three years ago to keep it.

U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge Karen K. Klein heard the attorneys’ arguments Tuesday and will draft a recommendation for Chief Judge Ralph R. Erickson on whether the case should be dismissed.

The presence of the monument was already dealt with under a 2005 federal lawsuit against the city, when the court determined the display was secular in nature.

But Freethinkers’ attorney, Bruce Schoenwald, argued Tuesday the context of the monument’s presence changed in 2007 when city commissioners approved the ordinance allowing it to stay.

“The adoption of that ordinance created a religious motive – aimed at a slap in the face of the Freethinkers,” who were trying to remove the monument, Schoenwald said.

John Baker, an attorney for the city, argued the Freethinkers’ argument does not meet the necessary standard under existing case law, saying they aren’t making a new claim on how they’ve been injured.

Because the 2007 ordinance made no change to the monument, the monument is still the same as it was when it was originally donated to the city in 1958, Baker said.

Therefore, the offense that the Freethinkers have against the monument remains the same as before, and that’s a claim already resolved under the 2005 lawsuit, Baker said.

Schoenwald acknowledged the Freethinkers’ ultimate goal is to get the monument removed, but said the adoption of the 2007 ordinance is enough grounds for the current lawsuit.

“The monument was on the way out,” Schoenwald said, adding that city commissioners adopted the wording of a petition that was circulating at the time, calling for the monument to stay where it was.

“By adopting the rationale of the petitioners, you’re adopting their statements,” Schoenwald said. “They’re motivation was religious.”

Baker argued that the city’s action did not make the monument religious.

“The monument has been on continuous display. The ordinance didn’t change that,” Baker said.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Kristen Daum at (701) 241-5541