Christian group asks federal court to dismiss suit challenging statue of Jesus

Tuesday, September 8, 1998

City officials in Marshfield, Wis., have enlisted the help of a national Christian-rights organization in their fight to keep a statue of Jesus in the middle of a city park.

Besides obtaining legal help from the American Center for Law and Justice, the national legal firm founded by television evangelist Pat Robertson, Marshfield officials have also sold a portion of the park containing the 17-foot statue. That parcel, however, remains surrounded by more than 113,000 square feet still owned by Marshfield.

The ACLJ submitted a motion on Sept. 4 to the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin seeking dismissal of a lawsuit challenging the city's ownership of the statue as a violation of the separation of church and state.

The lawsuit had been filed in April by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Wisconsin-based group that advocates the separation of church and state. Representing Marshfield taxpayers, the foundation argued in its suit that the presence of the statue on city property violated the First Amendment. The Knights of Columbus gave the statue to the city in 1959.

Frank Manion, senior counsel for the ACLJ's Midwest office, said that the sale of the Christian statue rendered the lawsuit moot.

“We are honored to defend Marshfield against this unwarranted and malicious attack,” Manion said. “While we are asking the court to dismiss this frivolous lawsuit, we are committed to standing by the city and litigating this case if necessary.”

Manion argues in the ACLJ's 15-page motion for dismissal that without “city ownership of the statue and the land on which it stands there can be no violation of the First Amendment. None of the cases cited by the plaintiffs address the constitutionality of a religious display on private property for the obvious reason that no one has ever suggested that such displays might violate any known constitutional provisions.”

The city sold 6,400 square feet of the land, which includes the statue, to a private nonprofit company called the Henry Praschak Memorial Fund in July. After the sale, city attorney Dennis Juncer sent a letter to the Freedom From Religion Foundation claiming that the sale was undertaken “specifically to attempt to satisfy the demands of your clients in regard to the location of the statue on city property.”

Anne Nicol Gaylor, founder and president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, said that selling the religious monument and surrounding land does not extinguish the perception that the city park contains a prominent symbol of religion.

“We don't agree with their argument at all,” she said. “You can't take a bite out of this prominent park and say there is no longer a problem. The perception remains that this is a public park promoting a Catholic Knights of Columbus statue.”

Gaylor has also asked the federal judge to rule in the group's favor and declare the statue's placement is a violation of the establishment clause. She said the judge must rule on the foundation's motion before addressing the ACLJ's arguments for dismissal.

Manion criticized the foundation's motives and said the group had offered no evidence that the city sold the land to save the statue.

“This is yet another case in which the professional anti-Christians in our society are trying to bully a small town into submission by bleeding the public treasury through expensive and frivolous litigation,” Manion said. “The city of Marshfield bent over backwards to accommodate the plaintiffs here by selling the statue and a substantial piece of the park to private owners.”

The foundation “should have done the reasonable thing and dropped this case once the sale of property went through,” Manion said. “The fact that they are continuing to sue Marshfield even when they know the city no longer owns the statue raises serious questions about their motive.”

Gaylor responded that the group's motive was to uphold constitutional principles.

“The city did not sell the land for valid reasons,” she said. “They sold it to maintain a religious presence in a public park. You have to look at the purpose of this sale and realize that a religious memorial, with the phrase 'Christ guide us on our way,' remains in the center of this large public park.”

Gaylor said the appearance of the religious symbol runs afoul of the government's duty to remain neutral toward religion.