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A federal court set aside a previous order declaring a Ten Commandments monument in La Crosse, Wis., to be unconstitutional.

In a 10-page decision released yesterday, U.S. District Court Judge Barbara B. Crabb also granted a motion clearing the way for the Virginia-based American Center for Law and Justice to represent the owner of the monument – the Fraternal Order of Eagles – which will now be a party to the case.

“It is highly significant that the court has not only allowed the Eagles to intervene, but also has nullified its own order declaring the monument’s presence to be unconstitutional,” said Francis J. Manion, senior counsel of the ACLJ.

Yesterday’s decision was the latest court action in a battle that began several years ago when Madison-based Freedom from Religion Foundation sued the city of La Crosse to remove the monument from city property.

The city, however, sold the monument and the property to the Eagles in August 2002. The ACLJ argued that because the FOE is a private organization, its decision to display the monument is constitutionally protected and cannot violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

“We’re confident that we will now be able to convince the court that the purchase of the monument by the Eagles was a perfectly valid and constitutional way to resolve this dispute,” the ACLJ’s Manion said.

Judge Crabb concluded, in her decision, “In short, I agree with the Fraternal Order of Eagles that it should have been joined as a defendant after the city sold the parcel. I erred in ordering the return of the property to defendant when the Order was not a party to the lawsuit.”

Manion insisted “it is undisputed that the monument and the land it is on are owned by the FOE, not the city. As a private organization, the FOE has the right to exercise its constitutional rights and keep the monument in place.”

He cited a federal appeals court ruling in a similar case in Marshfield, Wis., that “a sale of real property is an effective way for a public body to end its inappropriate endorsement of religion.”

With the case now reopened, the court has set a new a trial date, Feb. 17, 2004.

Meanwhile, a Ten Commandments display was removed from a Montana courthouse lawn Wednesday, effectively ending a 4-year-old lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Last month, Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore was suspended for violating a federal judge’s order by refusing to remove a Ten Commandments monument from the state judicial building’s rotunda. The 5,300-pound display was moved to a storage room. Moore faces a misconduct charge and could be removed from office.

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