Written by Don Byrd
A federal judge in Florida is not happy about it, but ruled unconstitutional a 34-foot cross displayed on a publicly owned city park, and ordered its removal. In his opinion, Judge Roger Vinson explained his view that the cross should be allowed to remain in place, but acknowledged that he is bound by controlling precedent that takes more seriously the Establishment Clause claim in front of him.
[T]he historical record indicates that the Founding Fathers did not intend for the Establishment Clause to ban crosses and religious symbols from public property. Indeed, “the enlightened patriots who framed our constitution” would have most likely found this lawsuit absurd. And if I were deciding this case on a blank slate, I would agree and grant the plaintiffs no relief. But, alas, that is not what we have here.
In ACLU of Georgia v. Rabun County Chamber of Commerce, the Eleventh Circuit considered this exact issue on virtually identical facts.
If the cross under review in Rabun County violated the First Amendment and had to be removed, the cross here must suffer the same fate. Indeed, not only are both of the above facts also present here (i.e., it is a Latin cross that was completed by, and dedicated at, an Easter Sunrise Service), but the mayor has said that he does not want the cross taken down specifically because he hopes there will “always [be] a place for religion in the public square,” which is essentially an admission that the cross has been sustained for a religious purpose.
The judge may not like it, but there are good reasons why courts have developed a body of case law protecting the religious liberty of all Americans by insisting that the government stay out of the business of promoting one religious viewpoint. A cross, as he thankfully noted, is a symbol of Christianity (others, sadly, have tried to justify government-sponsored crosses by suggesting otherwise). The state violates the First Amendment by embracing it. Public parks should be welcoming to residents of every faith.