A New Jersey man is arguing that he has a right to be able to put a cross in his front yard — though local authorities disagree.
It started as a simple gesture.
But it could have implications far beyond the quiet Livingston street where Patrick Racaniello affixed a wooden cross on a tree in his front yard.
Township officials say Racaniello’s display, which he intended as a celebration of Lent, violated an ordinance that generally prohibits postings on a structure, including a tree, “calculated to attract the attention of the public.”
Advised of the ordinance, Racaniello removed the cross. The Sterling Drive resident, though, then built a second, much larger cross that he planted on his property — just within the township’s 10-foot right-of-way. Racaniello, again facing fines, took down that cross, too.
He also contacted the Arizona-based Alliance Defense Fund, a coalition of Christian lawyers that, according to its website, advocates on behalf of “the spread of the Gospel.” The alliance told the township it may take the matter to court if officials don’t allow Racaniello to put the cross wherever he wants on his property.
“We believe this is private property, and therefore he has a right to engage in this expression,” Jonathan Scruggs, a lawyer for the alliance, said in an interview. “We believe that either cross is protected by the First Amendment.”
The judicial outcome of this conflict between an Essex County town and an Arizona legal group, scholars say, could go a long way to determine the reach of a 2000 federal land-use law intended to protect religious expression.
Racaniello, whom neighbors described as an entrepreneur, declined to answer questions, and referred all inquiries to the alliance.
Scruggs said he would wait for the township’s written response before the alliance decides whether to proceed with litigation.