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Legal Groups See Church-And-State Battleground In Idaho Town's Park

City of Sandpoint
A newspaper clipping from 1972 shows the placement of a 10 Commandments monument in Sandpoint, Idaho.

A little-known display of the 10 Commandments in north Idaho has attracted the attention of a couple of national legal organizations.

The issue involves a stone monument in Sandpoint's Farmin Park, donated to the city by the Fraternal Order of Eagles in 1972.

Sandpoint's city attorney didn't even know there was a 10 Commandments monument in town -- not until he got a letter saying the display violates the U.S. Constitution.

That letter came from a Wisconsin-based group called the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

“So under the Establishment clause of the First Amendment, we believe the monument shouldn't be allowed to be on government property, which is where this monument is,” says Patrick Elliott, an attorney for the group.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation says it’s received several complaints about the display since 2010.

But another legal heavyweight, the Liberty Institute out of Texas, has a very different argument.

“The Supreme Court has said that unnecessarily removing the monument simply because it has a religious nature to it can actually be demonstrating hostility under the First Amendment,” says Hiram Sasser, the institute's director of litigation.

Sasser has offered to assist the city of Sandpoint in mounting a defense if there's a lawsuit. The city is weighing its options.

Both national groups have gotten involved in a similar controversy in Coos Bay, Ore. In that case, the debate is over a Vietnam War memorial in a city park. It's in the shape of a cross.

In 2005, the Liberty Institute assisted the state of Texas in defending a nearly identical 10 Commandments monument the Eagles donated to the grounds of the capitol in Austin. That case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, where justices voted 5-4 to allow the monument to stay.