City must keep control of its own legal defense

Reasonable people can disagree over whether the City of Everett should move the Ten Commandments monument that sits outside Everett City Council chambers. Some see it as an unconstitutional melding of church and state, others say the granite slab is simply a historical monument that isn’t pushing religion on anybody.

But it’s hard to argue against the city’s decision not to accept an offer of free legal defense from the American Center for Law and Justice, an Virginia-based advocacy group founded by the Rev. Pat Robertson.

Even citizens determined to see the monument stay right where it is should be heartened by this call. The key to the city’s legal argument in this case is that the monument is not a declaration of support for a particular religion, but a time-honored part of the city’s history. Handing over defense of the case to a group with clear religious underpinnings could blow a fatal hole in that argument. Surely, it’s a move the group Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, which represents plaintiff Jesse Card, would love to see.

The monument was placed in its current location by the Everett Eagles in 1959 as a gift to the city. Over the years, other monuments – memorials to fallen veterans and to labor – have been placed nearby. Given that long track record and the mix of monuments at or near the site, the city believes its case has merit.

The argument for considering the Robertson group’s offer is financial. But Iles says the city already has spent about $80,000, most of what it will cost to take the case to verdict in U.S. District Court. Bringing in free legal help now wouldn’t save much.

Beyond the legal implications of ceding control of the case, the city would risk being seen as in step with the Robertson group’s entire political agenda, which might hurt efforts to recruit employers here. Economic development efforts often depend on a reputation for openness and progressiveness, something the city can’t afford to risk.

Citizens will continue to disagree about whether the city should fight this case or simply move the monument to private property. Either way, it’s good that city officials will be calling the shots.

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