Gov. Janet Napolitano will fight the Arizona chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union in court, if necessary, to protect a monument to the Ten Commandments at the state Capitol.
Today is the ACLU's deadline for the state to remove the monument from Wesley Bolin Plaza or face a federal lawsuit. Negotiations with the governor's office have gone nowhere.
"The governor does not believe that this monument in this location constituents a government endorsement of religion," said Napolitano spokeswoman Kris Mayes said. "She also believes there are a host of more pressing problems before us including education funding and forest health.
"If the ACLU decides to continue to oppose the monument in its current location, we will let the courts decide the issue," Mayes said.
Pamela Sutherland, the chapter's legal director, said the group can't compromise on First Amendment protections that require a separation of church and state.
"The principles that this country were founded upon include a respect for all religions, not just one religion," Sutherland said. "It's those values and principles that we're adhering to and that, actually, courts across the country have adhered to in saying monuments to one particular religion do not belong on state property. So we will be filing suit."
The deadline comes in the same week a federal court reaffirmed an order for a 5,200-pound monument to the Ten Commandments be removed from the Alabama Supreme Court. A federal appeals court upheld a judge's ruling that the monument installed in 2001 was unconstitutional.
Supporters of the Arizona monument argue there are important differences in this case from other displays from the Bible that courts have removed from public property.
The 6-foot tall granite monument has been on state property since it was donated by the Fraternal Order of Eagles in 1964. It is one of about 20 monuments in Wesley Bolin Plaza, a park setting just east of the Capitol complex in Phoenix. The monument doesn't sit near a direct path to any government office, and the state provides no funding to maintain it, according to a letter signed by state Senate President Ken Bennett, R-Prescott, and House Speaker Jake Flake, R-Snowflake.
Flake and Bennett said the monument is similar to displays at the Colorado State Capitol, which the courts allowed to stay six years ago.
Still, the federal courts in 2001 ordered the removal of the same type of monument donated by the Eagles to Elkhart, Ind.
Some Arizona lawmakers said Napolitano could have used the conflicting legal cases, and an offer from the Eagles to pay for relocation, as excuses to duck a legal battle with a group that's more likely to be sympathetic to the Democrat governor.
"Her history is that's her crowd," said Rep. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa. "Those are the kind of people who got her elected. So I'm pleased she would stand up for those 85 percent who not only believe it's right, but are pretty passionate about it."