The US Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit determined Friday that a lawsuit opposing a monument of the 10 Commandments displayed on publicly owned property in Fargo, North Dakota may move forward, according to Jurist.com.
The lawsuit was initiated against the city of Fargo by a nonprofit group, known as the the Red River Freethinkers, back in 2002. The group claimed that displaying the monument, first installed in 1961, violated the First Amendment's Establishment Clause.
The federal district court dismissed the original lawsuit because it determined that the Freethinkers lacked standing to bring the lawsuit against Fargo. However, the 8th Circuit reversed the trial court's decision on Friday, determining that the group did have standing.
The constitutional standing doctrine employed by United States Supreme Court requires a plaintiff to prove that she (1) suffered an injury-in-fact; (2) caused by the defendant; (3) and that the plaintiff's injury could be redressed by a favorable decision. If any of the 3 are not satisfied then the plaintiff's claim will be thrown out because it does not satisfy the Constitution's case or controversy requirement.
The Circuit Court determined that the Freethinkers satisfied all of the aforementioned elements, as the Freethinkers alleged an injury to their First Amendment rights, caused by the city's erection of the monument, and could be redressed by removing the monument from city owned property.
Accordingly, the appeals court remanded the suit back to federal district court in order to further develop the factual record.
Additionally, the Freethinkers previously had attempted to have commissioners approve a sister monument that asserted the US was not in any way founded on Christian principles, but the commission declined to approve that monument.
The Supreme Court's interpretation of the Establishment Clause is both a controversial and confusing issue. Over the years, the Court has maintained close to a strict separationist view on religion in government institutions. However, in certain instances the court has allowed certain religious objects to stand on government owned lands because the court has looked at these objects/monuments in their overall secular context.
The Lemon Test, developed in a 1970's United States Supreme Court case Lemon v. Kurtzman, is employed by the Court in Establishment Clause jurisprudence to determine whether a First Amendment violation has occurred. The test essentially requires a secular government purpose as well as secular effect. Thus, if the court finds that the purpose or the effect of the monument is to endorse a particular religion then a strict reading of the Lemon Test would demonstrate an Establishment Clause violation.
Here, although determining the city's purpose is a factual inquiry it seems that the effect of a 10 Commandments statute is to promote Christianity, which would lead one to believe that its erection violates the Establishment Clause.
Yet, on remand the City of Fargo will rely on cases like as Van Orden v. Perry, where the Supreme Court found no Establishment Clause violation when a 10 Commandments monument was erected on the grounds of the State Capitol building in Austin, TX. There, the court curiously determined that the monument was designed to promote the historical meaning of the 10 commandments and consequently did not endorse religion.
Because the Court does not consistently apply the Lemon Test the city will argue that the monument does not seek to endorse religion, while the nonprofit group will urge the district court to apply a strict reading of the Lemon Test.
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