The controversy appears settled over whether a 10 Commandments monument will be prominently displayed in downtown Kalispell, but the contentious issue continues to smolder as a local secular group is considering new legal action.
At a work session on Oct. 22, the Kalispell City Council declined a request from the local chapter of the Fraternal Order of the Eagles to take possession of seven statues near the Flathead County Courthouse, including the 10 Commandments, and place them in the city-owned Depot Park on Main Street.
The Flathead Area Secular Humanist Association (FASHA) had threatened to sue if the relocation occurred, claiming the city would be actively endorsing Christianity and violating the First Amendment’s separation of church and state.
“A lot of people have really strong feelings about the 10 Commandments personally and I respect that,” Ian Cameron, the founder of FASHA, told council. “It could mean something to me even, but the issue here is not what it means to us personally. It’s about whether or not we want our government…to be making those decisions for us or to be promoting those ideas.”
Cameron said the secular group is looking into suing the county for allowing the 10 Commandments to sit in its current location on public property.
“We do think that is also unconstitutional. It’s been on our radar screen,” Cameron said. “We may be looking at (legal action). We would hate to have anything legal happen but we feel strongly that this wouldn’t meet legal muster.”
Three of the four councilors who spoke up during the work session expressed hesitation over possibly becoming involved in a legal battle.
“It’s a nice gesture and it’s a nice thought but ultimately I don’t think it’s worth the trouble,” Councilor Randy Kenyon said of moving the 10 Commandments to Depot Park.
The FOE gifted the 10 Commandments statue to Flathead County in 1950 and it was placed in front of the courthouse. The religious display was challenged a few years ago and a group of local Eagles, led by Fred Bryant, raised money to purchase six other monuments that would include historical texts like the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights alongside the 10 Commandments. This made the monuments a “cornerstone of law” display, which could be considered admissible following a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2005.
The scuffle resurfaced after the county moved the monuments to the southwest corner of the property during a renovation of the courthouse, which was completed in December 2011. Bryant and the FOE requested the city of Kalispell to seek possession of the monuments and place them next to the current veterans’ memorial in Depot Park, which spurred FASHA’s response.
County Administrator Mike Pence said the county moved the statues during construction and could not move them back to their old location out front because new underground utilities could not sustain the above-ground weight, Pence said.
“We moved them to a spot that we thought would be a good place on the campus,” Pence said.
When asked about a possible legal battle, Pence said the county is standing by the assertion that the monuments all together are a “history of law” display.
“We’re fine with them being where they are,” Pence said.
Bryant has said his motivation for moving them to Depot Park is not driven by religion but by their connection to history and military service.
“The other monuments that had been purchased to support the 10 Commandments monument are pretty important to veterans,” said Bryant, a Navy veteran. “I and many others had fought for those ideas and quite a few people have died for them.”