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Ten Commandments lawsuit could become historic preservation issue

A lawsuit to force removal of a stone monument engraved with the Ten Commandments from City Hall property may become an issue of historic preservation.

A lawsuit to force removal of a stone monument engraved with the Ten Commandments from City Hall property may become an issue of historic preservation.

The Minnesota Civil Liberties Union (MnCLU) filed the action in federal court in Minneapolis this week to force the city to remove the 47-year-old, patriotically stylized display.

Court files list the St. Paul-based organization as plaintiff, along with Dale Hagen, David Davidson, Deborah Anderson, Dianna Hunter, Iver Bogen, Jane Doe, Maxine Caserta, Pamela Novotna, Richard Priley, Susan Stanich and William Van Druten. The city of Duluth, Mayor Herb Bergson and the Duluth City Council are listed as defendants. The council will discuss the lawsuit at a closed meeting on March 15.

The MnCLU maintains it has given the city three months to remove the monument, which it says violates a constitutionally mandated separation of church and state, but Duluth has not complied.

"We had hoped to resolve this matter without litigation. That's why we initially asked the city to remove the monument on its own," said Teresa J. Nelson, legal counsel for MnCLU. "However, the city has made it clear that they are not interested in addressing the issue without having legal action and without having a court ordering them to do that."

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"We had hoped to avoid having the city spend its own money to defend the legal action, but that's where we are," she said. "This is the law of the land."

Nelson said there is recent legal precedent for having the monument removed.

"Courts all over the country have been ruling that government display of the Ten Commandants is unconstitutional," she said. "So this is not some unusual position that we're taking."

Nelson cited the 2002 case in Plattsmouth, Neb., in which a federal judge ruled in favor of a "John Doe" plaintiff and ordered the city to remove a display of the Ten Commandants from a public park. That ruling is being appealed.

"This monument violates our clients' rights," Nelson said. "Our view is that we have been forced to initiate legal action."

Nelson said the MnCLU has a fund to pay for the litigation, but if the court rules in its favor, it will ask to have the court order the city to pay the organization's legal costs.

Nelson said the MnCLU has been asked for about 20 years by residents of Duluth and others to challenge the monument, which has taken on a high profile statewide. She said the McCLU hopes that if it is successful in Duluth, other communities with similar monuments on public property will remove them. She listed Moorhead as one of the those cities.

Bergson said he was aware it is an important issue to many residents. According to Bogen, the city has received an offer from First Presbyterian Church to provide a home for the monument, which would allow the city to forego expensive litigation.

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City Attorney Bryan Brown acknowledged that the city has been served with 20 days to respond.

"We have not yet presented our answer, but we will do so before the 20 day period, probably next week," he said. Once the city responds, Brown expects the court will schedule a pre-trial conference fairly quickly. He said the council or the mayor may decide to discuss the matter at any time.

While the separation of church and state issue has grabbed the news, the attorney hinted that other aspects of the case could lie in how the monument got there and what has happened over the years.

The monument came from the youth service branch of the Eagles Club and was installed in October 1957. In 1986, it was accepted by the National Register of Historic Places as part of the Duluth Civic Center Historic District.

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