- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 23, 2002

Officials in Frederick, Md., plan to sell the small tract where a Ten Commandments monument stands to avoid a costly legal battle with the American Civil Liberties Union.

"It's a resolution to something that's been a nagging problem," Mayor Jennifer Dougherty said. "I don't believe God cares where that monument sits, just that we believe what's on it."

The ACLU sued the city Aug. 23, saying the 5-foot-high granite marker in a city-owned park violates the Constitution's First Amendment ban on state-sponsored religion. Yesterday was the last day for the city to respond to the suit.

City officials proposed selling the strip of land, which is 10 feet by 50 feet and adjoins the 1.5-acre Bentz Street Graveyard Memorial Ground, formerly known as Memorial Park a publicly owned, 19th-century graveyard.

"My guess is that we wouldn't have prevailed in the courtroom. There's no way to know for sure, but there is a way to make sure it doesn't cost the taxpayers money," Mrs. Dougherty said. "There's no need for a fight."

ACLU officials yesterday said they could not comment on the sale or the status of their lawsuit.

"We are unclear about the details about how the sale will take place, who it will be sold to and what the circumstances of the sale will be," the group said in a statement.

"We're satisfied that this is going to protect the city from lawsuits," Frederick spokeswoman Nancy Poss said.

Protest first was raised against the monument in May, when a high school student took his objections to the ACLU.

The monument is one of many throughout the country that were donated to local governments in the 1950s by the Fraternal Order of Eagles. In the past decade, the small monoliths have come under attack from civil libertarians. In all, about two dozen jurisdictions are embroiled in legal action over the markers.

Frederick's five-member Board of Alderman first suggested in July that the city consider selling the land. The board also asked city officials to determine the cost of a defense fund.

When officials reported back, the board voted 3-2 to sell the land. The board voted again Wednesday to sell, although one member who had supported the sale was not present. The mayor broke the 2-2 tie with her vote in favor of selling.

Last month, appraisers valued the strip at $6,700, and the city will sell the parcel for that price, Mrs. Dougherty said.

Several potential buyers have expressed interest, the mayor said, and she expects the city to sell the property in the next 30 days.

The next and final step for lawyers on both sides is to talk to a judge together, and "get this wrapped up," Miss Poss said.

But that depends on whether the ACLU drops its lawsuit.

Miss Poss said other cases involving similar monuments around the country were settled by local governments selling the land, and that the ACLU approved those solutions.

If the city had chosen to fight, the ACLU would have been able to recoup its lawyers' fees if it won. The first quarterly bill the ACLU sent to the city totaled $18,000, Mrs. Dougherty said.

"Logic tells us that the ACLU hasn't ever lost a case like this, and that the American Center for Law and Justice has never won a case like this," the mayor said, referring to the ACLU's conservative counterpart. "We're trying to preserve our neighborhood peace and resolve this issue."

The land now up for sale contains the remains of two or three persons from the time when the park was used primarily as a cemetery, Mrs. Dougherty said. She said any contract on sale of the land will specify that nothing may be done to disturb those remains.


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