A Monumental Issue

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While we wait for the Supreme Court to decide if public parks and lands are an “open forum” for donated monuments (specifically religious monuments), another case has arisen dealing with many of the same issues. It seems that the Red River Freethinkers in North Dakota are suing the city of Fargo after refusing to allow them to erect a “sister monument” next to a 10 Commandments monument on the City Hall mall.

“Opponents of Fargo’s Ten Commandments monument have filed a civil lawsuit against the city, asking that the granite marker be removed. The attorney for the Red River Freethinkers, Bruce Schoenwald, filed the complaint in federal court Friday. It accuses the city of “unconstitutional conduct.” The lawsuit contends the Freethinkers’ rights were violated last year when Fargo refused to allow the group to put up its own monument near the Ten Commandments monument on city property. The Freethinkers also are seeking unspecified damages and attorney fees.”

What would be engraved on this monument? A line from the Treaty of Tripoli, a historical document unanimously approved by the US senate and signed by our second president John Adams*. A line that warms the hearts of religious minorities and secularists everywhere.

“…the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion…”

You can understand then why the City Commission, who were pressured by local Christians to not remove the 10 Commandments monument, would be hesitant to allow a “sister monument” that questions the status of America as a “Christian nation”. Which brings us back to the case currently pending before the Supreme Court, Pleasant Grove City, Utah v. Summum. This case should definitively decide if those overseeing public lands can favor one religious or philosophical monument over another.

“A SCOTUS decision here could all but force local government bodies to enact a fully-open policy concerning religious displays on government-controlled property. In other words, the local city council or mayor couldn’t pick and choose which religious displays are worthy to be placed with a Nativity Scene or Ten Commandments monument. It would be all or nothing.”

If the SCOTUS case ends up leaning towards public lands being “open spaces” the city of Fargo will have to either remove all religious monuments, or allow the Freethinkers their Tripoli monument. It will also further challenge the notion that displays of the 10 Commandments are somehow “not religious speech” because some Christians think our own laws were founded upon them. Recent SCOTUS rulings make it clear that 10 Commandments monuments are only admissible as part of “a broader moral and historical message.”

Fargo’s reluctance to compromise puts them on uneasy legal footing. They are clearly favoring one viewpoint over another, and it could end up costing the city quite a bit of money. Regarding the larger issue, the days of anti-Communist patriotic Christian fervor are over. The national mood that once allowed the government to insert “Under God” into the pledge of allegiance, and litter the landscape with 10 Commandments monuments (many of which were placed to help promote a film) is long past. The era of a religious “don’t ask, don’t tell” norm (if you weren’t a Protestant Christian) has given way to a multi-religious society in an increasingly post-Christian world. Christians can retain their place in the public forum, in the interchange of ideas, but only so long as they are inclusive of other viewpoints and religions sharing that same space.

* John Adams, a Unitarian, also called the Christian cross an “engine of grief” and insisted that America was founded by “the natural authority of the people alone, without a pretence of miracle or mystery”.