Giant Christian Cross in Pensacola (FL) Park Has to Come Down Within 30 Days

A U.S. District Court judge said today that a giant Christian cross on city property in Pensacola, Florida is unconstitutional. That marks a major step in resolving a more-than-50-year-old violation of the law.

CrossPensa
Just to give more background on this case: In June of 2015, activist David Suhor contacted Pensacola officials to get more information about the cross, giving them a chance to take care of this problem on their own. But they didn’t want to meet with him and they couldn’t tell him what group was responsible for putting up the cross in the first place. (You can read about that exchange on Suhor’s website.)

When that didn’t work, the American Humanist Association’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center and the Freedom From Religion Foundation separately sent letters to city officials saying the Cross had to go:

“By prominently displaying a Christian cross at Bayview, a public park, the city is promoting Christianity over all other religions and religion over non-religion,” said Monica Miller, an attorney with the Appignani Humanist Legal Center. “The courts have been virtually unanimous in determining that crosses on public land violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.”

Pensacola officials never responded to them, either.

In May of 2016, the AHA and FFRF filed a joint lawsuit against the city.

Federal courts have made abundantly clear that the government’s display of a Christian cross on public land violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment,” said Monica Miller, senior counsel with the Appignani Humanist Legal Center. “This cross sends a clear and exclusionary message of government preference for Christianity over all other religions.”

“Pensacola’s cross is a clear violation of the separation of state and church,” said FFRF Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler. “We’re thankful to be working with courageous Pensacola residents to end the city’s unconstitutional religious favoritism.”

“A Christian cross on public land marginalizes the growing numbers of non-Christian Americans while wasting taxpayer dollars on maintaining a divisive display,” said Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association. “The government should treat all theist and nontheist groups in the community equally. Favoring one over others is clear discrimination.”

“There are tax-free churches throughout Pensacola where this pinnacle symbol of Christianity may be appropriately displayed,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president. “But when a city park serving all citizens — nonreligious, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim and Christian — contains a towering Latin cross, this sends a message of exclusion to non-Christians, and a corresponding message to Christians that they are favored citizens.”

This case has been working through the court system, and attorneys for the city finally responded to the initial complaint in August. But their rebuttals raised a lot of eyebrows.

Just look at how the original lawsuit made clear what the problem was with the monument:

50. The predominant and nearly exclusive use of the Bayview Cross has been for religious activity.

City officials responded by saying they didn’t see it that way:

50. Denied. “Religious activity” is not the exclusive use of the cross. The cross has a secular purpose — i.e. to mark an annual community service attended by thousands of people and participated in by civic, government, and military leaders, local schools, law enforcement, and the Boy Scouts, at which the Easter holiday was observed and flowers were laid at a cross (often in times of war) in memory of those who had suffered and died defending this country.

Riiiiight. Somehow, a memorial to our veterans just happened to be built in the shape of a Christian cross. Don’t connect the dots because this is totally not about Jesus. Even though everyone celebrates Easter there.

The original lawsuit also said:

70. The City has been put on notice, repeatedly, that the Bayview Cross amounts to unconstitutional governmental endorsement of religion and that it makes non-Christian residents feel excluded from the community.

The city’s response?

70. Admitted the City has received complaints about the cross. Denied that the cross is a government endorsement of religion. Denied that a reasonable observer aware of the history and all other pertinent facts relating to the display would view the cross as a government endorsement of religion.

So the attorneys claimed that a reasonable person seeing the giant cross and knowing its history — the same history they refused to tell to Suhor — would never think it’s associated with Christianity.

Keep in mind the only plaque near the monument has everything to do with Easter and nothing to do with fallen soldiers.

The city should have admitted the obvious: This was a Christian monument and it needed to be on private property. Instead, they fought this lawsuit by claiming the cross was purely secular, a laughable claim that no reasonable person would ever take seriously.

And now a judge has confirmed what the atheists have been saying this whole time.

In his ruling, Judge Roger Vinson relied on legal precedent that has already ruled against similar crosses. There’s no secular purpose to them, he noted. And the mayor of the city certainly didn’t help his case:

… 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.

Ultimately, a permanent cross like this cannot stand, Vinson said.

To be clear: None of this is to say that the cross would have to come down if the City sold or leased the area surrounding it to a private party or non governmental entity (so long as the transfer was bona fide and not a subterfuge). Nor would there be a constitutional problem with worshipers using a temporary cross for their services in the park (counsel for plaintiffs conceded that point during the hearing). However, after about 75 years, the Bayview Cross can no longer stand as a permanent fixture on city-owned property. I am aware that there is a lot of support in Pensacola to keep the cross as is, and I understand and respect that point of view. But, the law is the law.

Damn right it is. The atheists knew the law. The city officials did not. The cross will have to come down within 30 days.

And just to rebut the charge that atheists did this for the money, the city will owe the plaintiffs a grand total of $1. That’s it. This battle was always about the law, not money.

The AHA is thrilled with the victory:

“We are pleased that the Court struck down this Cross as violative of the First Amendment,” said Monica Miller, Senior Counsel at the Appignani Humanist Legal Center. “The cross was totally unavoidable to park patrons, and to have citizens foot the bill for such a religious symbol is both unfair and unconstitutional.”

Incidentally, there were four plaintiffs in this lawsuit: Suhor, Amanda Kondrat’yev, Andreiy Kondrat’yev, and Andre Ryland. The judge noted that the Kondrat’yevs have moved to Canada, so they don’t have legal standing, and Suhor “booked the amphitheatre for Easter Sunday” last year for “satanic purposes,” arguably contradicting his own claims of being offended by the cross in the area.

However, Ryland did have legal standing, which is why the judge could rule on its merits instead of dismissing it on a technicality.

No word yet on whether the city will appeal the decision, but it’d be foolish on their part since the law, as Vinson notes repeatedly in his decision, is firmly on the side of the atheists.

***Update***: Plaintiff Amanda Kondrat’yev sent along this statement after hearing of the decision. (It’s been edited for clarity.)

I am pleased to hear that the U.S. Federal Court judge has found the 25-ft white cross in Pensacola, FL, unconstitutional. For me, as someone who was brought as a teen to Pensacola by the U.S. military from abroad, the cross in the public city park was a jarring sight that was a physical symbol for the feeling of exclusion I had gotten from the moment I arrived and for the many years leading up to my agreement to appear on this public case. Pensacola is already heavily saturated with churches around town, and the influence of Christianity often illegally permeates public spaces, such as in schools and in government. The city of Pensacola was asked for several years to do something to make the park more neutral, but they refused and denied any problem existing at all (other than the meddlesome atheists).

While I personally believe most churches to be unregulated tax shelters, I understand that freedom of religion is supposed to be a right in the U.S. and to some people they are comforting. For standing up for this right, I received threats and was told to leave the country. Strangely enough, an opportunity to do just that arose and now we are in Canada. We didn’t and still don’t feel safe in the US, especially now under [Donald] Trump and [Jeff] Sessions. I don’t imagine that the threats will subside now that the case has been finalized and will soon circulate to more of those loving Christians who want an inanimate object more than me and my family. I don’t regret standing up for what is right, and I hope Pensacola and the U.S. eventually become more accepting of non-Christians.

For this right and others to be applied equally, we must fight and continue to challenge obvious violations such as religious monuments in spaces that are supposed to be for all. It is simply impossible for all to be treated as equal while public officials pretend that their Christian cross is anything but an endorsement by the state of a single religion.

There can be no justice until freedom for minorities is equally protected under the system. Without equal protection and enforcement, the words that make up our rights are meaningless. I am happy about the decision on this case, but still furious about injustices occurring daily with white terrorists and killer police. The judge ruled on this case fairly (it should be noted that the other three plaintiffs are white men), but the U.S. has a long way to go to achieve equality and justice for all. #blacklivesmatter

(Large portions of this article were published earlier)

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.