The city of Evansville, Indiana, recently approved the public display of 30 eight-feet-tall polyethylene crosses along the riverfront. The church that wants to erect the Christian symbols says that they’re not intended to promote Christianity; they are to be interpreted as an art display, because the crosses will be painted and decorated by the church’s Bible-camp kids. Plus, the exhibit is only temporary, scheduled to open on August 4th and to close just 12 days later. No biggie, right?
I’m not so sure. In my post about the initiative, I concluded
There’s a certain nose-thumbing aggression about erecting dozens of downtown crosses as tall as a room; and there’s an unmistakable whiff of chutzpah in the twinkle-eyed assertion that they’re works of art rather than three-dimensional billboards for Jesus. If the legal departments of the ACLU or the FFRF feel the same way, we haven’t heard the last of this.
This week, the ACLU did indeed get involved – by filing a lawsuit against the city.
Two Evansville residents on Tuesday asked a federal judge to block the city’s plan to allow a local church to erect 30 eight-foot-tall crosses decorated by Bible school children on public land along the Ohio River.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana filed the lawsuit on behalf of Chris Cabral and Nancy Tarsitano in U.S. District Court in Evansville. ACLU attorney Gavin Rose said the plaintiffs, who are not related, both live near the popular riverfront greenway where the crosses are to be displayed for two weeks in August.
The ACLU believes it has a strong case. Rose pointed out that
“… the Supreme Court has consistently held that displays of religious symbols on public property violate the separation of church and state when a reasonable person looking at those symbols could conclude that the city was endorsing religion in general or a particular faith.”
But the city’s attorney, Ted Ziemer, doesn’t see what all the fuss is about. Evansville previously allowed displays of all manner of painted animal statues and drew no complaints, he says. (Deliberately or not, Ziemer sidesteps the central point: that those other exhibits were not an apparent endorsement of religion.)
Beyond putting out a press release, the ACLU has been amazingly tight-lipped about the affair. (I put in six or seven phone calls this week, both to the Indiana office and to the organization’s New York headquarters, and got no response.)
I did, however, hear back from Rebecca Markert, an attorney with the Freedom From Religion Foundation. I had asked her if, legally speaking, it made any difference that the display of crosses was only temporary. Markert said no: the Establishment Clause applied equally to temporary exhibitions of religiosity and permanent ones.
“It’s illegal for a government to put up a sole display of a nativity scene — also an inherently religious symbol — on public property. Those displays are temporary as well. There is also case law that prohibits the government from erecting crosses as part of Christmas displays. In our view, a display of a powerful, sectarian symbol such as the cross on public property is illegal.”
I also asked Rebecca whether she’d be mollified if the city made it clear that other faith and non-faith groups may erect large temporary symbols on Evansville’s streets, too.
In that case, she said, FFRF would apply for a permit to create its own display: “We did submit an open records-request to determine the policy and procedure for that scenario. Should that be the end result, FFRF will put up something to counter these crosses.”
Her group has reached out to the ACLU of Indiana to offer any assistance with the current lawsuit.
But not everyone interested in this case thinks that legal skirmishes are the way to go. I’ve been e-mailing with Evansville resident Zac Parsons, a humanist and a reader of this site. He’s more of a bridge-builder than a scorched-earth warrior, and he even took the time to go meet some of the people behind the crosses initiative. He likes them a lot and blogged about it:
“The spirit behind these statues is as genuine and pure as it gets. I’m still not sure whether I support the statues or not, but [post-visit] I feel much more informed about the people involved in this story. … No matter what, I hope that the next steps will involve calm, rational discourse about the appropriate place for religious icons in a community’s public spaces, and that Evansville can be a shining example of the ideals of Interfaith in action.“
Parsons added in an e-mail to me that
“While the ACLU getting involved was inevitable, I don’t see it as peaceable, long-term solution. However, I am glad that the two individuals who coordinated the filing of the lawsuit have stepped forward. I’m trying to reach out to them to get some more background on their goals with the lawsuit. Perhaps we can broker a meeting between the church members and the litigants to discuss what would be best to do on behalf of the community.”
But most people who cared enough to weigh in on the issue don’t seem to see it that way. They want no part of the crosses. Poll results published in the Evansville Courier & Press aren’t even close: of 5,390 respondents (and counting), 4,864 are opposed to the display. That’s 90 percent.
Then again, this matter is not a popularity contest. A judge is going to decide whether the crosses will become a reality. If the verdict is yes, other groups should feel free to start making their own exhibits.
Consider this your cue, atheist artists and designers. Got ideas for a secular sculpture show in Evansville? Share them in the comments!