SANDPOINT — The Ten Commandments monument isn’t going anywhere for now, but that didn’t stop hundreds from filling Farmin Park Thursday to protest its possible removal.
The melody of “Amazing Grace” filled the park as attendees bustled around the monument, holding signs and signing a petition to preserve its location. Sandpoint Police Chief Corey Coon’s announcement that the monument wouldn’t be moved Thursday didn’t seem to impact turnout for a planned 2 p.m. gathering, which easily swelled to 300-500 people at its peak.
“I don’t like this at all,” attendee Gladys Larson said. “There’s no way someone can come into our town and dictate what goes on here.”
Controversy began Wednesday evening when word rapidly spread through social media and phone calls that the monument would be moved Thursday. While city officials didn’t confirm the removal, they did say they were investigating alternative locations for the monument. These investigations began after the city received a letter in November from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the largest national advocate for non-theists.
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“Ten Commandments displays continue to cause distress and divisiveness and continue to be challenged around the country,” the letter reads. “The best approach is to remedy the liability by moving the monument now.”
Freedom From Religion Foundation attorney Patrick Elliott said the organization sent the letter following around three or four complaints since 2010 from both residents and out-of-towners. It’s rare for the nonprofit to receive multiple reports of an alleged grievance in a small town, he added.
“(The foundation’s) letter addresses this primarily as a matter of policy rather than as a legal issue,” he said.
Even so, the monument’s location still opens the city to the potential for costly litigation, City Attorney Scot Campbell said.
“I would be equally criticized if we received the attached warning letter and ignored it and were later sued to remove the monument, potentially costing the city a lot of money to defend the lawsuit,” he added.
Parks and Recreation Director Kim Woodruff said the city has no plans to move the monument. The controversy added up to a long day for him as he explained the situation to residents calling his department.
“People were generally very good to deal with,” he said.
According to a city press release, Mayor Carrie Logan asked Woodruff to work with the Fraternal Order of the Eagles, which donated the monument to the city in 1972, in discussing alternative locations for the monument. This is purely to eliminate the city’s liability and is not a slight to religious residents, city officials said.
“No disrespect is meant to the faith community,” a press release reads. “Rather the decision was a business one to protect the financial interests of the city in these litigious times.”
The controversy came as a surprise to many council members. Councilman Bob Camp said he hadn’t heard anything about it until he caught the rapidly-spreading word Wednesday night following a city meeting.
“I got two phone calls (that night), and now, I’ve basically been answering the phone all day today,” he said.
City officials have added a public hearing to the City Council agenda set for 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at Sandpoint City Hall to gather public opinion regarding the monument. The Eagles will also hold a meeting 7 p.m. Thursday to discuss members’ thoughts on the issue.
“My guess right now is that most everyone would want to leave it where it is,” Eagles vice president Dave Dawson said.
In addition, local conservative organization the Friends of Idaho have taken up the banner for the monument. They plan to discuss the issue at a meeting scheduled for 6 p.m. Friday, March 21 at Sandpoint Community Hall.
“Friends of Idaho recognizes that the threat of litigation is the reason for the city’s action,” group member Pam Stout said. “However, we must ask that they rethink their decision.”
People have taken issue with the monument’s placement in the past, according to former councilwoman and clerk Helen Newton. She said that during her time as clerk, visitors would sometimes wonder if it represented a violation of the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment. However, no one ever filled out an official complaint form, much less filed a tort claim.
In a somewhat ironic twist, the public uproar centers around a monument many people said they didn’t know existed in Sandpoint. It’s unlikely it will escape notice again as the issue develops over the coming weeks.