On Oct. 25, Flathead County Commissioner Gary Hall began his speech to about 45 people gathered in front of the county courthouse with an anecdote. He recalled that in 2004, when Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU) first asked the county to remove its Ten Commandments monument from the courthouse lawn, he told a local radio host it would be done “over his dead body.”
A few weeks ago, the county removed the monument, and Hall got a call from the same radio host asking “if I was dead, or what.”
Hall is alive and well, and so are the Ten Commandments.
When AU first brought its complaint to the county, the commissioners put forward the idea of a “Cornerstone of Law” display. The idea was that the Commandments would have better legal standing as something other than an overtly religious display in a grouping.
But at the new display’s dedication ceremony, only passing reference was made to the six new granite slabs representing the Mayflower Compact, the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, the Magna Carta and the preambles to the U.S. and Montana constitutions.
Instead, Hall and Fred Bryant, a member of the local Fraternal Order of the Eagles chapter that donated the original monument in 1968, talked about how they skirted the battle with AU.
Most of the new monuments make reference to the Christian God in their first few paragraphs. But while the First Commandment states “Thou shall have no other Gods before me,” the First Amendment, part the Bill of Rights monument, counters with “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…”
As of now, it appears the county’s Commandments display is safe from the Bill of Rights. Jeremy Leaming, a spokesman for AU, says his group never went further than sending a letter to the county asking for the Commandments’ removal because of two cases, in Texas and Kentucky, that the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to consider. The Texas monument stayed, Leaming says, because it was part of a long-standing grouping of diverse monuments. Kentucky lost its monument because it clearly amounted to endorsement of religion. But camouflaging one monument with others may not be all there is to it.
“If they are essentially creating other monuments with the sole intent to promote and celebrate the Ten Commandments, then that appears to be a government endorsement of religion,” Leaming says of Kalispell’s solution.
At the ceremony, as if to clear up any doubt, Commissioner Hall invited a local Protestant minister to lead the small crowd in song. The minister chose “God Bless America.”