An interesting decision by the Eighth Circuit Friday suggests a way for plaintiffs who object to public religious displays to get more than one bite at the apple. In 2002, a group called the Red River Freethinkers sued the city of Fargo, North Dakota, alleging that a Ten Commandments monument on city property violated the Establishment Clause. A federal district court applied the endorsement test and ruled against the group in 2005, concluding that a reasonable observer in the circumstances would not perceive an official endorsement of religion. The Freethinkers did not appeal that ruling, but instead petitioned the city to accept a companion monument declaring that the United States Government was “not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.” Rather than display both monuments, the city initially decided to remove the Ten Commandments display altogether. That decision caused a public outcry, however, and the city reversed itself. The city decided to retain the Ten Commandments monument and indefinitely table the Freethinkers’ petition for the companion display.
At that point, the Freethinkers sued again, arguing that the city’s decision to retain the Ten Commandments but reject their secularist monument failed the endorsement test. The city objected that the Freethinkers lacked standing to bring this second suit, but on Friday the Eighth Circuit disagreed. The Freethinkers had alleged an actual, concrete injury — the Ten Commandments monument had made them feel alienated and unwelcome in Fargo, they claimed — which could be remedied by the monument’s removal. Moreover, res judicata did not bar the suit, because the Freethinkers had alleged a new injury resulting, not from the city’s initial decision to erect the Ten Commandments monument, but from the city’s decision to retain the monument without placing the Freethinkers’ monument alongside it — a decision which the city took after the initial lawsuit had ended. In a separate opinion, Judge Shepherd argued that, although the Freethinkers did have standing, they were unlikely to prevail on the merits. He would have dismissed the case.
I’m not sure whether the Freethinkers planned it this way, but their strategy of offering the city a secularist memorial has cleverly kept the controversy alive. They can effectively retry the constitutionality of the Ten Commandments monument, get media attention, and impose further litigation costs on the city. (It’s already been 10 years!). Could they do this repeatedly? Assuming they lose this round on the merits, could the Freethinkers wait a while, offer a different secularist monument, and start all over again? I’m not a civ pro maven, but I doubt it. Anyhow, it’s worked for them so far. The case is Red River Freethinkers v. City of Fargo, 2012 WL 1887061 (8th Cir., May 25, 2012).