Judge Settles Ten Commandments Dispute

A dispute in Indiana over a City Hall monument featuring the Ten Commandments has potentially been resolved — but the court-ordered remedy may be based on a misunderstanding of the settlement that city and advocacy groups agreed to.

U.S. District Judge Allen Sharp has approved the city of Elkhart's proposed solution, which involves keeping the display of the 6-foot-high twin tablets and erecting four other historical monuments next to it.

But Sharp's decision may have resulted from a misunderstanding of attempts by the city and civil liberties advocates to reach a compromise, according to city attorney Vlado Vranjes.

In settlement talks last month between the Indiana Civil Liberties Union and the city of Elkhart to resolve a 1998 lawsuit over the display, the city suggested erecting new markers to accompany the existing Ten Commandments monument. City officials suggested erecting markers bearing texts of four other documents considered to be pillars of the nation's legal system — the Bill of Rights, the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and the Magna Carta.

Vranjes said the ICLU accepted the proposed monuments as legitimate markers if they were to be erected, but objected to the city's remedy, instead urging the existing monument's removal from City Hall grounds. The report filing was not intended to signal that the ICLU had consented to add more markers, he said.

"Maybe Judge Sharp construed the stipulation as a remedy, that we were saying that's what the remedy should be," Vranjes said. "I think that he's going to retract it once we explain what's going on."

Sharp's order, issued Monday, requires the city to carry out its proposed remedy.

"This court now fully and completely adopts the contents of this stipulation of Feb. 15, 2002, as the remedy in this case," the order reads.

The timing of the order also came as a surprise to lawyers who still were working on final arguments, Vranjes said.

Ken Falk, an ICLU attorney, said the group had filed a brief opposing Elkhart's proposed remedy.

"The plaintiffs have not agreed to the proposed remedy, the proposed postings by Elkhart," he said.

Sharp declined comment Tuesday to the South Bend Tribune.

Michael Suetkamp, one of two Elkhart residents the ICLU represents in the case, said he was disappointed by the judge's order and found the city's proposal unsatisfactory.

The new display, which the city intends to emphasize the secular nature and historical significance of the Ten Commandments, would be accompanied by a sign explaining the monuments.

Mayor Dave Miller has said he hopes to pay for the additional monuments with private donations. The Ten Commandments monument was a gift to the city by the Fraternal Order of Eagles in 1958.

Sharp's ruling comes a week after the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the state's appeal of a ruling that blocked the state's effort to erect a Ten Commandments monument on the Statehouse lawn in Indianapolis.

The ICLU objected to the plans, and has been battling the Ten Commandments issue at other courthouses in the state.

In the Elkhart case, The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in December 2000 that the present display violated the constitutional separation of church and state. The ruling overturned a decision by Sharp.

The sides began settlement talks after the U.S. Supreme Court last spring declined to hear the city's appeal.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.