DUCHESNE — Duchesne city officials gave it a pretty good shot, but their efforts may not stand up in court against precedents in other states.
Duchesne has a Ten Commandments monument in Roy Park, and the Society of Separatists wants it off city property. The society filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court Sept. 16, naming the city, Mayor Clint Park and all six City Council members as defendants.
The city tried to stay one step ahead of the movement to order religious monuments off government property by deeding the 10-by-11-foot piece of ground around the monument to the Duchesne Lions Club just one month before the suit was filed.
Newly hired city attorney Cindy Barton-Coombs recommended the move, but according to Brian Barnard, attorney for the Maryland-based nonprofit Society of Separatists, that strategy has been attempted before in other cities and failed.
"The court says you can't make a pretense that a 10-by-11 plot smack dab in the middle of the city park is no longer part of the city park," Barnard said. "The point is, why was this particular plot of land given to the Lions Club? It was given to the Lions Club as a subterfuge to maintain the monument."
Barnard also said the city cannot "willy-nilly" give a piece of government property away without having its motives questioned.
Barton-Coombs declined comment, but Park said that for the time being the city has no plans to move the monument. They will discuss the issue in more detail at their City Council meeting tonight.
"We are going to try and leave it where it is for now. Our attorney will go in and file for an immediate dismissal," he said.
In an interesting twist, it turns out the Ten Commandments monument in Duchesne is not one of the nine donated to cities in Utah by the Fraternal Order of Eagles in the early 1970s.
However, Barnard's lawsuit mistakenly identifies it as such. The ninth monument had just been located in Brigham City when a member of the Society of Separatists ran across the monument in Duchesne. The monument is framed by three trees in the park's northwest corner at 250 S. Center St. — the road that leads to the county fairgrounds.
Park said he was surprised the monument wasn't spotted earlier, given its location. "I thought someone had found it a long time ago. We had the county fair last month, and it's right there where everyone can see it."
According to Duchesne city records, the monument was erected in 1979, the year after Duchesne civic leader Irvin A. Cole passed away. Cole's wife, Leona, purchased the monument for $2,500 to $3,000. She received city approval to have it placed in Roy Park. An inscription reads, "In loving memory of our husband and father Irvin A. Cole — Leona Cole, wife, daughters Rae Donna, Lou Ann, RoJean." RoJean Cole Addley served 2 1/2 terms as mayor of Duchesne in the 1980s.
Although the monument wasn't given to the city by the Eagles, it does have a strong tie to the service organization, explained Lou Ann Cole Larson, who resides in Tooele.
"My husband and I were both past presidents of the Fraternal Order of Eagles in Tooele and my folks were impressed that they were donating those (Ten Commandments monuments) to each city they had a convention in, clear across the United States," Larson said.
It's hard for Larson to believe that such a fuss is being raised about the monument now, after it has stood in the park for 23 years. Larson said that since the lawsuit was filed, her family has had several offers from people in Duchesne volunteering to display the monument on their property.
Barnard said his clients aren't against the Ten Commandments or religion, but don't want to see government property used as a platform for religious ideals.
According to Barnard, Duchesne city officials can put a quick end to the lawsuit by moving the monument. He suggested that it be moved to a location on private property where it can be more prominently displayed. In Tooele, he noted, the Ten Commandments monument was moved from city property to the front lawn of a mortuary on the city's main street to avoid litigation.