Michigan Town Won’t Sell Land with Cross to Atheists (Despite Financial Benefit)

If you were to visit the Father Jacques Marquette Shrine in Ludington, Michigan, you would see a monument with a large Christian cross. It went up in 1955, and the location was declared a Michigan State Historic Site in 1966, making it a public area. The city voted last year to spend $75,000 (of taxpayer money) to upgrade the Christian shrine.

All of this adds up to a potential constitutional violation since the cross could be seen as a promotion of religion.

The Michigan Association of Civil Rights Activists (MACRA) sent a letter to the Pere Marquette Township Board of Trustees last year calling for the cross to come down, suggesting there’s no historical justification for it.

In this case, [Pere Marquette Charter Township] has clearly established a religious purpose by maintaining a “shrine” on public property. With the large white cross, the PMCT is advancing the Christian religion over all other faiths and religion generally over non-religion. By combining the shrine, public park, and public boat ramp — all maintained with public tax dollars — the PMCT has excessively entangled religion and government.

MACRA and the complainant believe there is a narrow window of opportunity for a win-win solution. Because the cross itself is not historic in any way, and a contractor has already been retained to “demolish the existing shrine,” we recommend permanently removing the cross from public property.

Should the cross be restored as planned (or in any form), its presence on public land, maintained by taxpayer funds will likely result in legal action against PMCT seeking a court order to compel its removal. By voluntarily removing the cross now, the PMCT Board of Trustees will prevent costly litigation in the future.

There’s nothing wrong with honoring an explorer, even a religious one, but the cross was excessive and served as a de facto Christian monument.

In late November, adding more pressure on local officials, the Freedom From Religion Foundation also sent a letter to the Township urging them to remove the cross or move it to a private location.

Last night, the Pere Marquette Township Board gathered to consider an alternative solution: They were thinking of selling the land on which the cross sits — just that little bit of it — to the (private) Pere Marquette Memorial Association for a total of $800.

That association would have almost certainly kept the cross in place. But the town would be immune from a lawsuit. Problem solved, right?! Take that, atheists!

Not so fast. FFRF sent the township a letter yesterday with a counter-offer:

If the board decides to sell this land, FFRF asks that the board consider FFRF’s offer to purchase the same parcel for $2,000.

What justification could the town possibly have for turning down that offer? It’s almost like FFRF was setting them up to do the right thing… or lay the groundwork for a lawsuit. (FFRF, in addition to offering more cash, still urged officials to just take down the cross or move it off that space.)

With that in mind, last night, the town board voted to… sell it for $800 to the people who are going to leave the cross in place.

… the township voted to sell the land to the Pere Marquette Memorial Association.

“It was better because it was a concrete offer. It was better to show what will happen to the property and how they would maintain it. There was details, the other offer was just, we will give it to you for $2000,” says Ed White, Lawyer for the township.

The Pere Marquette Memorial Association will be forming a board to talk about plans for the site.

How’s that for financial irresponsibility? They turned down an extra $1,200 because they didn’t want to make a phone call to FFRF to find out what they would do with the property or how they would maintain it? They just assumed the new local board — which doesn’t even exist yet — would figure it all out.

I can tell you how it’ll play out: The board won’t do anything to change the area and the cross will remain in place. That was always the goal, wasn’t it?

What we don’t yet know is whether there’s a legal case to be made that town officials were taking a worse deal so that they could promote religion. FFRF notes that even if the town takes the lower offer, which they did, “it would have to have a substantial enclosure and disclaimer because the township must still ensure after the sale that there is no appearance of a religious endorsement.”

If the town doesn’t make it explicitly clear that the cross is not promoted by the city, they may still be hit with a lawsuit.

(Portions of this article were posted earlier)

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