8th Circuit reinstates challenge to N.D. Commandments display
FARGO, N.D. — A lawsuit opposing a Ten Commandments monument on Fargo city property can move forward, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled May 25 in reversing a decision by a federal judge.
A three-judge panel ruled that the Red River Freethinkers should be allowed to proceed with its action against the city and sent the lawsuit back to district court. The ruling extends a debate that began in 2002 when the group filed its first suit in federal court.
“Of course we’re elated and we’re planning to go forward with the case,” said Bruce Schoenwald, lawyer for the Freethinkers. “I assume it will go to trial at some point if we can’t get it resolved some other way.”
John Baker and Stacey Tjon Bossart, attorneys for the city, were not available for comment in time for this story.
The group claimed in the lawsuit that its members’ constitutional rights were violated because the city gave the monument a religious purpose in voting three years ago to keep it on the Fargo Civic Auditorium plaza and not allow other markers, such as one proposed by the Freethinkers.
U.S. District Judge Ralph Erickson dismissed the lawsuit in 2010 on a recommendation from U.S. Magistrate Judge Karen Klein that the suit did not have merit. The Freethinkers appealed to the 8th Circuit, which reversed the dismissal on a 2-1 vote in Red River Freethinkers v. City of Fargo.
Circuit Judge Bobby Shepherd, who backed the district court decision, said there was no evidence the commissioners were motivated by religion.
“Accordingly, I see no reason to remand this matter to the district court for further consideration, relegating the court and parties to a new and needless round of litigation,” Shepherd wrote.
The Ten Commandments monument was donated to the city by the Fraternal Order of Eagles on March 8, 1958, to commemorate an urban renewal project. It was installed on its current site in 1961.
The debate over the monument began 10 years ago when the Freethinkers filed a lawsuit to have the monument removed. Erickson ruled in September 2005 that the monument celebrates both religious and secular ideals and does not violate the Constitution.
The group then asked commissioners to approve a sister monument that would have read, “The government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.” The commission declined and instead voted to donate the Ten Commandments marker to a private entity.
That decision was later reversed after members of the public complained. The commission also adopted an ordinance that would not allow any other monuments on the plaza.