A ‘Worship’ Cross on Public Land is About to Become a Problem for Middleboro, Massachusetts

If you were to drive through Middleboro, Massachusetts, you would see this unusual structure on a median on Route 28:

A cross in Middleboro (Emily J. Reynolds – The Enterprise)

The 12-foot by 7-foot Christian cross has been there for more than 50 years, and sits on public property, half of which is owned by the city, half of which is owned by the state, and all of which is illegal.

The proposed solution to this problem was that the state would sell its half of the property to Middleboro, and Middleboro would then sell all of the property to the local (private) Kiwanas Club. Which is a very roundabout way to keep promoting Christianity through the government.

Jeff Stevens had the good sense to speak out against that plan at a town meeting earlier this week:

Jeff Stevens lobbied town meeting to stay out of the fray, fearing the town will become embroiled in a lawsuit threatened by the American Civil Liberties Union.

“This is not a Middleboro problem,” Stevens said. “It will open up our town to legal challenges.”

Stevens said the issue is being closely watched at the national level and said, “Government should not be involved in this.”

You have to ask whether the town would be willing to sell property to a Muslim group wanting to put up a large crescent or an atheist group wanting to put up a banner reading “In Reason We Trust.” If the answer is no — and it sure as hell would be — then there’s no reason a Christian group should be getting special treatment.

Despite the smart advice from Stevens, the town decided to continue with its original plan on a 228-10 vote.

Sure, that makes sense… ignore the guy trying to help you and put yourself in a position to get sued. That’s how you run a city. Given the Republican leanings of the town, I guess I’m not surprised.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Matt Potter

    I just wanted to congratulate Middleboro for the thousands of tax dollars they are putting at risk. As a poker player I would advise them to fold as they have a losing hand.

    • tsig

      Losers never do that, they keep raising and raising til the last moment, then they fold.

    • UWIR

      The problem with the poker analogy is that if you win a poker hand, you get something of actual monetary value. All they get out of this is assertion of privilege.

      • Jasper

        Aren’t you going a bit overboard with the pedantry? Many people play poker without actual money, for one thing…

        But of course it’s not exactly like playing poker.

        You may as well have said “The problem with the analogy is that they aren’t playing with actual cards, sitting around a card table, drinking whisky and smoking cigars.”

        What they’ll get out of the deal is that sustained privilege, and they stand to lose it.

        • UWIR

          I think that your accusation of pedantry may be based on misunderstanding my point. Poker, properly played, is a game of rational analysis in which the goal is to make logical cost-benefit calculations. The goal is to win chips, not to win hands. Here, there are no chips in the pot to be won. Even if they were to win, they wouldn’t get anything out of it other than whatever pleasure they get out of being assholes. Granted, that pleasure may be considerable, but they accomplish the goal of being assholes just by fighting the case, regardless of whether they win or lose.

          “Many people play poker without actual money, for one thing.”

          Exactly. In some games, there are chips representing real money in the pot, and players throw in chips representing real money for a chance to win them. In other games, there are chips that don’t represent any actual money in the pot, and players throw in chips that don’t represent any actual money for a chance to win them. Here, they are throwing real money in to win a pot that has no real money. Once someone’s acting that irrationally, pointing out that they have little chance of winning is unlikely to dissuade them.

          • Sweetredtele

            I think the analogy is apt. To me, these people are the jerks who go all in right away every hand when they know they ain’t got nuthin and hope for three deuces. Don’t care about rules or strategy or playing a good fair game.

  • busterggi

    Now if folks started dropping off dead animals as sacrifices at the cross….

    • Itarion

      New rule: all roadkill in Middleboro is to be left at that cross.

      • John O’Brien

        We could ship it in from out of state!

  • A3Kr0n

    I wonder how friendly they’d look if they replaced the cross with a noose?

    • Dangerous Wishcraft

      I think it should be fine. Both are used for the same purpose. Maybe we could even add an electric chair.

  • jonas

    Funny you never see Joe Klien bringing up common sense solutions to avoid the risk of losing millions in a lawsuit defending a pious misguided sense of Christian privlege.

    • http://www.last.fm/user/m6wg4bxw/ m6wg4bxw

      Beat that fucking horse.

      • ShoeUnited

        You never see Joe Klein beat a dead horse.

        • Sweetredtele

          I saw a horse beating Joe Klein once.

  • DaveV1968

    Maybe someone should offer to buy the land at $1.00 more than the Kiwanas Club is paying then sue if they aren’t allowed to buy the land.

    • Sam

      I was going to suggest this too. If they don’t let others put in bids and insist on only selling to the Kiwanas that is favoring a certain group. I would pitch in to help buy the island and put up an FSM statue.

    • Halmartin Brown

      Read the suggestion in my blog – I made this exact point… this is where the town could run into another legal problem, only with the state, not the U.S. Constitution. The state doesn’t allow a town to give, sell, or convey property showing favoritism to one group or individual or another. I argued that the land should be put up for open bid.

      If I had the money – or wanted to spend the money I do have – I could see putting up an attractive display sign like the one in my blog:

      http://www.enterprisenews.com/eclectic/x1406975165/Middleboro-cross-has-nothing-and-everything-to-do-with-religion

  • Jasper

    “But we’ve been breaking the law for sooooo long now that it’s magically okay!”

    • baal

      I think the SCOTUS will say exactly that next year. I’m not looking forward to it.

  • velveteenRabbit

    well, some FFRF types need to get together a matching offer for the land… then we’ll see what happens.

  • http://www.last.fm/user/m6wg4bxw/ m6wg4bxw

    A Christian symbol beside a “no left turn” sign

    • closetatheist

      huh, I wonder if its a subliminal message about what kind of “right” thinking is supported in the town, cause they seem to not be in support of those who veer to the left.

      • Lori F

        If you can’t turn to the left, you can’t go to the cross, hence, avoid the cross. That’s my read.

  • http://www.google.com/profiles/billnetter Bill Netter

    God put it there! (grin)

  • Dangerous Wishcraft

    When they aren’t allowed to shove their sacred torture device onto everyone else, then they scream discrimination. Let any other group have equal rights, and they scream BLOODY MURDER. In fact, blood, gore and torture are also sacred to Christians.

  • Jeff

    I am frankly not surprised that the town voted to continue. They don’t quite get that, “because it’s our religion, it must be right” is not a good precedent to set.

  • LesterBallard

    I’m guessing they wouldn’t go for an Islamic symbol, or from any other irrational bullshit, except maybe Judaism.

  • Shane Corbett

    is anyone pursuing legal action? I hope so, such arrogance!

  • Rain

    No idea why a perfect god would want “worship” anyway. Dumbest thing I ever heard of.

  • rpj

    I’m having a bit of a hard time understanding this one. Once the land’s all sold off, it will be in private hands, right? Which means that those hands can do whatever they want with it – keep the cross, tear it down, put up 50 more, etc. What am I missing here? And if this solution is no good, then what solution IS acceptable?

    • allein

      I think it’s just the fact that rather than stop breaking the law they would prefer to sell the land just to keep the cross up. It still tells me that the government officials involved are more interested in the religious message than the law and the constitution. Why not just let some private group take the cross and move it to their own private land instead of looking for loopholes to keep it where it is?

      • godlessveteran

        Because they wouldn’t be keeping their undeserved privilege.

        • allein

          Yeah, it was a rhetorical question..

    • C.L. Honeycutt

      The problem is that when confronted with law and ethics, they try to pull an end-run around both. And Christians trying this move have a history of undervaluing the land, damaging the value of the surrounding government land by selling a hole out of it, and accepting no-bid offers.

      • Brian K

        You’re not wrong, but wouldn’t it be decent (or at least prudent) of us to try to find a solution that doesn’t deliberately stick our thumb in the eye of as many people as possible? We can promote the establishment clause without being so damned adversarial about it.

        • C.L. Honeycutt

          I’m all for just leading the horses to water in theory, but according to my admittedly underwhelming knowledge of history, these sorts of people always end up having to be dragged forward by force of law. Acceptance comes later, after they realize that their fears were unwarranted.

          Annnd then they always completely forget the lesson, blame other people, and have to be dragged forward the same way the next time.

      • rpj

        So, although the land would ultimately be private and therefore would no longer violate the establishment clause, it’s a problem because 1. it’s being sold to a christian group for the explicit purpose of preserving the cross, without any chance for other groups to buy it, 2. it’s being sold el cheapo, thus giving not only opportunity but financial privilege to a christian group, and 3. historically, when confronted with insurmountable legal challenges, governments move only grudgingly and as minimally as possible. Is that about right?

        In that case, I can see where everyone is coming from here, although personally as long as the religious imagery is no longer on public land I’d be staisfied.

        • C.L. Honeycutt

          That’s it! The rest is really prioritization on the part of secularists. Some will go after any challenge, some will pick and choose. My feelings shift back and forth there, but both approaches have merit.

    • Rich Rodgers

      It’s spelled out in the article. If it was already owned by the Kiwanis Club, there’d be no problem. But you can’t specifically sell only to a religious group for the sole purpose of saving this cross. It’s not the act of selling that’s a problem, it’s giving special favors in selling gov’t owned land. Other groups should be allowed equal opportunity to buy the land at the same price, or bid on it. Otherwise, it’s government showing obvious and blatant preferential treatment. See Kwame Brown and the city of Detroit for what this can lead to if Gov’t is allowed to just pick who it wishes to give things to.

      • eric

        This. By selecting a buyer using “will preserve the cross” as a criteria for selection, the state is treating other potential buyers unfairly and establishing religion. Its also treating local taxpayers unfairly, because the have an interest in their local government getting the best possible price for the land.

      • godlessveteran

        Example: 10C headstone in Wirt Park, Hanover PA. Plot sold in sweetheart deal; lawsuit shot down by bigoted court.

        • C.L. Honeycutt

          I can’t find this. Do you have a link regarding it, please?

  • Tor

    Maybe it’s time for a big truck to have an “accident.”

  • Drew James

    How dumb !….

  • CN

    I would like to donate to the first group to sue to have it removed.

    • Halmartin Brown

      It appears that the ACLU is ready to take this case if it goes any further.

  • eric

    here’s no reason a Christian group should be getting special treatment.

    This is exactly the problem. If you want to do this the ‘right’ way, the city and state owners auction the land off with a starting bid a little under the expected land value, and let the winner do whatever they want with the cross. The state gets paid a fair price, they haven’t shown any favoritism, and unless some out-of-town group gets involved, there is a very high chance that the new owners will keep the cross (because most of the town is christian conservative). Everyone wins.

    Trying to force a cross-preserving solution by making a sweetheart deal with a selected private receiver who has agreed to preserve the cross is pretty much the opposite – an ‘everyone loses’ deal. The public and taxpayers aren’t getting a fair price for the land, private investors interested in that land aren’t being treated fairly, and the state can be fairly accused of establishment.

  • Halmartin Brown

    Hey, I live in this town… and write a blog for two of the larger newspapers that cover the area south of Boston. I just updated my piece “Middleboro cross has nothing and everything to do with religion” and want to invite (beg, plead) with you to read it and share some of your comments. http://www.enterprisenews.com/eclectic/x1406975165/Middleboro-cross-has-nothing-and-everything-to-do-with-religion

    The controversy made the front page of the paper today – see the photo. There’s a link to the newspaper article on my blog.


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