Thou Shalt Not...

Mar 21, 2014

A little-known display of the 10 Commandments in North Idaho has attracted the attention of a couple of national legal organizations.  The issue involves a stone monument in a city park in Sandpoint.  It has similarities to a controversy over a war memorial in Coos Bay, Oregon.

A newspaper clipping from 1972 shows the placement of a 10 Commandments monument in Sandpoint, Idaho.
Credit City of Sandpoint

Sandpoint's city attorney didn't even know there was a 10 Commandments monument in town – not until he got a letter saying the display violates the U.S. Constitution.

That letter came from a Wisconsin-based group called the Freedom From Religion Foundation.  Patrick Elliott is an attorney for the group.

“So under the Establishment cause of the First Amendment, we believe the monument shouldn't be allowed to be on government property, which is where this monument is,” said Elliot.

Another legal heavyweight taking interest in the issue is the Liberty Institute out of Texas.  Hiram Sasser is the director of litigation.

“The Supreme Court has said that unnecessarily removing the monument simply because it has a religious nature to it can actually be demonstrating hostility under the First Amendment,” said Sasser.

Sasser has offered to assist the city of Sandpoint in mounting a defense if there's a lawsuit. The city is weighing its options.

Both national groups have become involved in a similar controversy in Coos Bay, Ore.  In that case, the debate is over a Vietnam War memorial in a city park. It's in the shape of a cross.

In 2005, the Liberty Institute assisted the state of Texas in defending a nearly identical 10 Commandments monument the Eagles donated to the grounds of the capitol in Austin.  That case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, where justices voted 5-4 to allow the monument to stay.

Sandpoint's 10 Commandments monument was donated to the city in 1972 by the Fraternal Order of Eagles.  The Freedom From Religion Foundation says it’s received several complaints about the display in Farmin Park since 2010.

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