FARGO – A legal battle with a secular rights group that has cost the city of Fargo more than $120,000 is not over yet.

A lawyer for the Red River Freethinkers intends to appeal an Aug. 25 ruling by a three-judge panel that sided with the city in a dispute over a monument of the Ten Commandments on public property near City Hall, said Charles Sawicki, the president of the group.

A pair of lengthy lawsuits has spanned more than a decade in the fight between the city and the Freethinkers group, which claims the monument violates the separation of church and state.

The city has spent $88,115 on the current lawsuit, said Kent Costin, the city’s finance director.

The Freethinkers have spent $16,631, Sawicki said.

The cost difference is likely due to the city’s decision to outsource its legal defense to a Minneapolis law firm that bills $270 per hour, while its opponents have hired local attorneys who bill at less than half the cost.

The city is represented by John Baker of Minneapolis law firm Greene Espel, which boasts online of its “Best Law Firm” ranking by U.S. News and World Report. Baker has been awarded the title of “super lawyer” for 11 years running, according to his profile on the Greene Espel website.

Bruce Schoenwald of Moorhead firm Stefanson Law represents the Freethinkers and bills $100 per hour.

Donor dollars help

The first Freethinkers suit, filed in 2002, ended in 2005 when a judge ruled that the monument could stay because it represented both religious and secular messages.

That suit cost the city about $35,000, Mayor Dennis Walaker said at the time.

Sawicki said he could not provide an estimate for the Freethinkers’ cost for that suit.

The Freethinkers sued a second time in 2008 after the city denied their request to place a secular-themed sculpture next to the Ten Commandments monument and banned competing monuments altogether.

The city won a fresh legal victory Aug. 25 when a three-judge panel of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit ruled against the Freethinkers in a 2-1 decision.

But the Freethinkers are not done yet. Sawicki said the group hit the $15,000 cap on what its members were willing to spend on the suit, but donors offered to pay for an appeal to a panel of all the 8th Circuit judges.

Sawicki declined to provide details on the donors.

A court employee said a petition to appeal from the Freethinkers had not been filed as of early afternoon Friday.

The city budgeted $50,000 for legal defense and claim payments this year, Costin said.

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