Wisconsin town no longer owns Jesus statue, so judge allows it to remain in park

Thursday, January 7, 1999

A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a statue of Jesus in a Wisconsin public park.

Since 1959 a towering statue of Jesus has stood in the most prominent park in Marshfield, Wis. In April the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Wisconsin-based group that advocates a rigid wall of separation between church and state, sued the city in federal court arguing the placement of the Christian symbol in the public park violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment. The foundation represented a businessman who avoided driving past the park so he would not have to see the statue.

Shortly after the suit was filed, the city sold the statue and a surrounding portion of land to a private foundation. After the sale in July, Dennis Juncer, the city attorney, sent a letter to the Freedom From Religion Foundation stating the sale should satisfy the group's concerns.

Freedom From Religion officials, however, insisted selling the statue did not cure the perception that the city was endorsing a religion. They asked the federal court to issue a permanent injunction barring the city and the private foundation from maintaining the statue in the park.

“You can't take a bite out of this prominent park and say there is no longer a problem,” Anne Nicol Gaylor, the founder and president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation said then. “The perception remains that this is a public park promoting a Catholic Knights of Columbus statute.”

Gaylor, moreover, claimed that the city's sale of the statue and portion of land was done solely to avoid the constitutional challenge and thereby keep the Christian symbol in the park.

The American Center for Law and Justice, a national legal and educational group that advocates a greater role for religion in the public arena, argued on behalf of Marshfield before the federal court that the sale of the statue and surrounding land had rendered the lawsuit moot.

U.S. District Judge John C. Shabaz did not buy the Freedom From Religion Foundation's concerns over the sale and last month dismissed the lawsuit against Marshfield.

“The court finds that the City of Marshfield did not show a preference for the Christian religion which violated the U.S. Constitution or the Wisconsin constitution by selling the parcel of land and the statue to the Fund,” Shabaz wrote, referring to the Henry Praschak Memorial Fund, Inc., the private foundation. “Furthermore, the Fund's operation of that part of the park with the statue standing in it is not state action because the City does not maintain, control, operate or care for that portion of the park. The Fund, therefore, cannot be found liable for violating plaintiff's constitutional rights.”

Frank Manion, a senior attorney for the ACLJ, praised Shabaz's action.

“We think that this victory shows that municipalities do not have to be bullied by the anti-religion crowd,” Manion said. “Once the statue was sold, there was no real argument” that the city was endorsing religion, he said.

Annie Laurie Gaylor, editor of the Freedom From Religion's publication, Free Thought Today, said the group's lawsuit did produce a victory for the separation of church and state.

“It is important that the city no longer owns and maintains the statue,” Gaylor said. “Because of our lawsuit, the city had to get rid of the statue. We made our point and the judge agreed that the city could not constitutionally maintain the statue. Unfortunately to the average motorist going by the park, there is no way of knowing that the city does not own the entire park.”

Gaylor said the group was still mulling over the pluses and minuses of appealing to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.