A federal appeals court backed a Wisconsin city’s creative effort to preserve a Ten Commandments monument.

The decision yesterday overturned a ruling by a federal district court which said the city of LaCrosse’s sale of the monument and accompanying land to the Fraternal Order of Eagles was a violation of the First Amendment’s ban on congressional establishment of religion.

Last February, the district court ruled that the August 2002 sale “demonstrated a preference for the religious message of the monument … .”

In Monday’s 2-1 applelate court decision, however, the three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit rejected that conclusion, saying the sale was “constitutionally appropriate.”

The dispute began when Madison, Wis.-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.

Francis J. Manion, senior counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice who presented oral arguments before the appeals court, hailed the decision.

“The appeals court is correct in determining that the arrangement by which the city sold the monument and the land it sits on to the Eagles – a private organization – is constitutional and a reasonable solution to keeping the monument in place,” he said.

The ACLJ said the appeals court relied on a similar case it considered in 2000 when it determined the city of Marshfield, Wisc., could sell a statue of Jesus to a private landowner as long as it was made clear to the public that the city no longer owned the statue.

The ACLJ represented Marshfield in that case.

In its decision in the La Crosse case, the appeals court concluded “the buyer of the parcel has a long-standing and important relationship with the Monument.”

The court said, “It was the Eagles, of course, who donated the Monument to the City in the first place and it is the Eagles who have maintained the Monument. Selling the Monument to the Eagles, rather than removing it, also makes practical sense – the Eagles headquarters is, and has long been, directly across the street from the Monument. The members will also continue to carefully maintain the site.”

The ACLJ is defending public display of the Commandments in several cases pending at the U.S. Supreme Court.

The group also is awaiting a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit on whether it will reverse a decision by one of its three-judge panels that declared a monument containing the text of the Commandments in Plattsmouth, Neb., to be unconstitutional.

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