Council declines to accept Ten Commandments

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Thanks, but no thanks.

That was the Kalispell City Council’s reply Monday to a request to put the Ten Commandments and a collection of other stone monuments on display at Depot Park.

“It’s divisive and it could possibly bring us into a legal entanglement we don’t need,” council member Randy Kenyon said about moving the Ten Commandments to the city park. “I would vote against this.”

The monuments presently stand behind the Flathead County Courthouse in a small “cornerstone of law” display.

The display includes monuments for the Magna Carta, Mayflower Compact, Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights and preambles to the U.S. and Montana constitutions.

Council member Jim Atkinson said that the monuments shouldn’t be divisive, but added he “would probably not want to place the city in liability for what could be coming down if [they] are moved to city property.”

Mayor Tammi Fisher said she “will be the first person to donate to a fund” to move the Ten Commandments and other monuments onto private property. “I believe in them and every other document [there], but think they belong on either private property or at the courthouse where they were to begin with,” she said.

Fred Bryant and Dick Frisk, members of the Fraternal Order of Eagles, asked for the city’s OK to move the monuments to Depot Park.

The organization donated the Ten Commandments monument to the county decades ago.

More recently, Bryant helped raise donations to buy the other monuments for the “cornerstone of law” display after an advocacy group threatened to sue the county for violating the establishment-of-religion clause of the First Amendment and the separation of church and state concept. Adding the other monuments got the advocacy group to drop its threat of a lawsuit.

The display stood out front of the courthouse until the building was renovated last year, when the display was moved to a nook behind the building.

Bryant and Brisk want the monuments displayed in a more visible location and said a site near the veterans memorial in Depot Park would be perfect.

They argued that the legality of such displays on public property was settled by a Supreme Court ruling in 2005 that upheld a Ten Commandments monument at the Texas State Capitol.

“I and many others have fought for those ideas and quite a few people have died for them,” Bryant said of the Ten Commandments and the other monuments.

Council member Bob Hafferman asked for Monday’s work session on the request, hoping to keep it from going unanswered.

“I asked to put it on the agenda so it didn’t linger for months and months like the code of ethics or the other statutes or the airport that has lingered and languished for decades,” he said. “If we move these things along we’re better off.”

Hafferman said his only concern about moving the monuments to Depot Park is making sure they are maintained and repaired if vandalized. He said he does not share legal concerns raised by other members of the council, pointing out they already sit on public property.

“I’d assume the flap over the constitutionality was settled over six years ago when the solution appeared logical to make them a [cornerstone of law] display. That seemed to satisfy the religious objections,” he said.

Ian Cameron, founder of the Flathead Area Secular Humanist Association, said the group objects both to putting the Ten Commandments on city property and leaving them on county property — it just hasn’t had time to challenge the display.

“We think the county having that on their land also is unconstitutional, so we may be looking at that,” Cameron said. “We would hate to have anything legal happen, but we feel strongly that this wouldn’t meet legal muster.”  

IN OTHER discussions, council members agreed to have an ethics policy drafted for Kalispell. The city has no ethics policy beyond the code of ethics in the Montana Constitution for elected officials and public employees in the state.

Reporter Tom Lotshaw may be reached at 758-4483 or by email at tlotshaw@dailyinterlake.com.

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