A town, a cross and the Constitution

Nearly two decades ago (and man, do I feel old!), I covered the fast-growing suburb of Edmond, Okla., for The Oklahoman, then Oklahoma’s statewide newspaper.

As a 20-something journalist learning my craft, I wrote about bizarre, made-for-TV murder cases in the affluent bedroom community and spent long nights at planning commission meetings chronicling NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) zoning fights.

One of my most memorable stories, though, concerned a battle over a Christian cross on the Bible Belt city’s official government seal. This was the lede on a Page 1 report that I produced in May 1994:

Edmond claimed victory Wednesday in a two-year fight over a Christian cross on its city seal, as a federal judge ruled the symbol neither advances nor inhibits religion.

U.S. District Judge David L. Russell declared the seal, adopted in 1965, depicts Edmond’s history and heritage.

He ruled the seal does not promote Christianity as an official religion, as argued by the American Civil Liberties Union.

The judge’s decision, ending a 1 1/2 -day trial in Oklahoma City federal court, drew praise from city attorneys and an immediate promise of appeal from two of five plaintiffs who sought removal of the cross.

More than a year later, a federal appeals court overturned that decision and ruled the seal unconstitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to intervene, letting the appeals court ruling stand. By the time the court fight finally ended, I had written dozens of stories on the issue and moved on to a new beat covering inner-city Oklahoma City public schools.

All these years later, however, I still can’t resist stories that involve church-state clashes, which is why a Page 1 story in today’s Indianapolis Star caught my attention.

The headline:

Cross vs. Constitution: Symbol of faith brings Dugger, Indiana community to arms

(Best I can tell from reading the Star report, nobody in town is actually taking up arms over the dispute, but folks are pretty fired up.)

The top of the story:

DUGGER, Ind. — Head west on Route 54 through the heart of this small Southwestern Indiana town, and you’ll come upon a sign for the Church of Christ.

Keep driving along this 1-mile stretch, and you will see the Dugger First Baptist Church on the left, along with another sign, for First Christian Church. A few blocks farther, on the right, is a sign for Bible Baptist Church. Back on the left is an advertisement for a Christian radio station, 88.7 FM.

Go past Hicum Street, and you happen upon Whosoever Will Full Gospel Church — today’s advertised Bible verse is Psalms 147:8. Then, at Johnson Street, there’s a little sign on the ground pointing right, towards Cass Church.

But it’s just a little farther down Route 54 — right there behind the right field fence at the Union High School Bulldogs’ baseball field — where you find the most visible display of faith in town and the sudden source of more than a little angst.

It’s a cross — 26 feet tall, white with red lettering, all caps in a serif font. Those letters spell out “Jesus saves.”

That’s terrific, colorful writing that makes me want to keep reading. A quick aside: The lede does make me curious about exactly what Psalm 147:8 says. If it’s worth citing a specific verse, why not quote it? (Yes, I realize that trees are in short supply, especially for modern-day newspapers.)

As the story continues, the point of contention becomes clear: The cross is on public property. Americans United for Separation of Church and State wants it removed. The Star provides details on the group’s objections and then adds:

All this amounts to what is no less grave than a violation of the United States Constitution — the Establishment Clause, to be exact. The letter’s writers quoted founding father James Madison to make their point.

The town of Dugger doesn’t have the cash to fight this in court, said Council President Dwight Nielson. Nor would it likely win.

Nielson plans to comply with the letter, though exactly how is unclear at the moment.

Another quick aside: Am I the only one curious as to what Mr. Madison said? If you’re going to bring up his name in the story, why not quote him? (Please don’t tell me you’re going to bring up that tree thing again …)

My other question about that short section of the story concerns the “Nor would it likely win” reference. Who is the source on that statement? Did Nielson say it? Did Barry Lynn with Americans United for Separation of Church and State say it? Did the reporter come to that conclusion based on his own research?

But overall, this is an extremely compelling, nicely done daily news story.

I like the conversational tone. I like the fairness afforded to both sides. I like the context on Americans United’s statewide and national advocacy in this area. I like the specific details from what sounds like a colorful town. I like that the Star sent a reporter to town to get the scoop.

You don’t get details like these over the phone:

When word got around Tuesday that an Indianapolis Star reporter was coming to town to write about the situation, more than 40 people showed up at the cross for the occasion. They brought white tents and water bottles. One girl wore a shirt that said “Better saved than sorry.”

They held hands and formed a prayer circle around the cross. “We’re asking you, Father God, for a voice from heaven, Father, to know if this is a time to stand and fight, Father God,” said the first man to speak, Trevis Pinkston. “Father God, we need to know now, Father God.” His speech was met with a rousing “Amen.”

Image via Shutterstock

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • sari

    One thing missing were the town demographics. Is the town home to Christians only or are other minorities present? Was it a Dugger resident who sparked the suit, or was it the result of a stranger riding through town?

    It struck me as odd that no one anticipated this when the cross was erected two years ago. Suits of this type often crop up over religious iconography whose placement predates the current interpretation of separation of church and state. The question should have been asked: in light of other, similar suits, why did the town agree to the initial placement? The town has a new council; seems like it would also have been good to track down some of the original players.

    The IndStar reporter seems to attended the same press conference as the Greene County Daily World, which has been covering the topic for some time. Here’s today’s article, which answers some of the questions you asked by providing better attributions and more complete quotes (though less sophisticated writing):

    http://www.gcdailyworld.com/story/1871735.html

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby Ross Jr.

    One thing missing were the town demographics.

    Good point. That would have been interesting and relevant.

    As for who sparked the suit, my understanding reading the article was that Americans United received a complaint from someone but is in no hurry to identify the person.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    Sari, Bobby – Can either of you clarify for me why the demographics would be relevant?

  • MikeD

    As for the legal issue, I think the reporter is likely correct in his prediction of the outcome of such a lawsuit due to the recent erection of the cross and the nature of its location. However, the reporter could have easily called up a legal expert such as Prof. Rick Garnett at Notre Dame to get a more neutral perspective on the legal analysis rather than rely on the statements from Barry Lynn. He should also have reported the location of the other 6 towns in Indiana that Barry Lynn has sent letters to since 2005 and the outcome of the religious displays in each one. Might have made for a good sidebar.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby Ross Jr.

    Ray,

    I think the demographics would be relevant for helping readers understand the nature and makeup of the community. The lede mentions all kinds of churches, yes. But most small towns in flyover country have several churches. The specific stats would provide more concrete information.

    I am not suggesting that the demographics matter related to the constitutionality of the cross on city property.

  • sari

    Ray, if the town is entirely Christian, very possible in small town Indiana, then the cross is really a non-issue; it’s offensive to no one who lives there. To require its removal because it might offend someone at some time, or someone who’s passing through (who can make the decision to spend their dollars or settle elsewhere), especially if none of the locals object, makes the lawsuit frivolous. There’s a point where blanket implementation of any law goes too far to accommodate one group while infringing on the rights of the other group.

    I have no doubt that the cross will be removed or the land sold to a religious entity to ensure that it remains where it is, but the suit would make more sense if it could be shown that it was initiated by a towns person and not simply by a group looking to make a point.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby Ross Jr.

    Ray, if the town is entirely Christian, very possible in small town Indiana, then the cross is really a non-issue; it’s offensive to no one who lives there.

    This is not the place to argue the validity of that statement, but I do think it would be good for reporters to ask questions along those lines: Does the Constitution protect the right of all individuals to live in a country free of government-promoted religion? Assuming everyone is a Christian (which honestly would surprise me even in a small town), what happens if a Jew or Muslim moves to town?

  • sari

    Exactly my point, Bobby. The cross was erected and sanctioned by the local government two years ago. No mention is made of any dissent; none of the people involved in the original decision were interviewed. So, why now? What changed to precipitate this lawsuit? Have the demographics changed? Is this a personal vendetta against someone on the governing council? Or is it simply to stir a pot which wasn’t simmering? I’d much rather have seen those questions addressed than a paean to small town Christian fervor.

    If I lived in such a town, placing the cross on public land would bother me, but, being familiar with such places, I chose to live in a more diverse setting. If you are interested, pick up a book entitled The Jew Store. It will give you some insight on what it was like to live as a religious minority in Duggar-like towns.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    Bobby, thanks, I think I get it now.

    Sari – I’m afraid I have to agree with Bobby (as I understand him); if something’s illegal the fact that it doesn’t bother anyone in the vicinity would not change the fact that it’s illegal. I mean, you speak of “the rights of the other group” – are you saying that if everyone there is Christian, they have the legal right to have their city government specifically endorse Christianity?

  • Jon in the Nati

    I’ll second (or third, as the case may be) what Ray and Bobby are saying. While the jurisprudence regarding the establishment of religion and general government involvement with religion is incredibly convoluted and sometimes contradictory, the religious demographics of the relevant area have never been relevant.

    Simply put, the entire country could be 100% Southern Baptists (for example), and the government still would not be able to endorse religion of any kind, or officially prefer religion over irreligion.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    The nominal religion of people living in a community is irrelevant. If no one spoke up, it could come from social pressure more than personal conviction. Small towns are like that.

  • Darkward

    “Small towns are like that.”

    As opposed to places like Los Angeles or Manhattan, where there’s absolutely no social pressure to conform to what the locals think.

  • sari

    Y’all are missing my point. The article fails to address the history of the cross and how it came to its current placement with support of the city council and without comment from the community. The journalist failed to interview any of the people who made the decision to erect it on public land or to ask why, in light of how the law is and has been applied, they chose to move forward anyway. For two years no one complained. What changed? What tipped the balance to generate this lawsuit?

    I understand the law and its purpose, and, probably more than many here, have experienced firsthand what it’s like to be the odd religion out in a small homogeneous community. What’s interesting, at least to me, are the dynamics of the situation. The writing may be colorful, but it leaves a lot of questions unanswered. A different article states that the town is $65K overdrawn. Could the suit have been initiated by a dissenting voice, one which felt the monies spent lighting the cross could be better spent elsewhere?

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby Ross Jr.

    In most cases, sari, I would think that the complaining party would be anonymous. Americans United probably would not have a compelling reason to subject the complaining party to public scrutiny, or the person could have made an anonymous tip and AU may not know who complained.

    In the Edmond case I cited, there was an outspoken Unitarian minister who led the charge, but most of the plaintiffs were people whose names were unknown until a federal lawsuit actually was filed.

  • sari

    Bobby,

    Americans United requires those who report violations to disclose personal information (first & last name, contact info). Whether they choose to share that information is a different story. Here’s a link to the online form.

    http://www.au.org/get-involved/report-a-violation/form

    My question addressed how the situation came to this point. Two years ago, the cross was a done deal with no detractors.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    Sari – Asking questions about the history of the cross, or the demographics of the town, indeed helps clarify the situation.

    I wasn’t asking you about that.

    What you said was, “…if none of the locals object, [it] makes the lawsuit frivolous. There’s a point where blanket implementation of any law goes too far to accommodate one group while infringing on the rights of the other group.”

    What I’m asking you is, whose rights would be infringed by the removal of the cross or the sale of land it’s on? That’s what I don’t understand about your comment.

  • sari

    Ray,
    I felt that much pertinent information was missing from the article: the history (start to finish) of the cross, relevant interviews with council members who approved its placement on public rather than private land, the demographics, -and- Americans United’s history and mission.

    I question the necessity of such lawsuits and whether their rigid implementation benefits or harms members of the local community and the larger society. Who gains what by forcing this town to relocate the cross? Just as troopers selectively enforce speed limits and rarely ticket those doing 58 in a 55 mph zone, sometimes it makes sense to ignore the small to concentrate on the large. If Dugger’s demographics are changing, that is, there has been an influx of non-Christians, the cross will eventually come down, with or without a lawsuit. But, if this suit was filed just because–because of one person who lacks the courage to come forward or because a person driving through town wants all traces of religion removed –then the public needs to know that, too.

    Keep in mind that I grew up in the South and now live in Texas, which blends the south and the west, but is neither, and have never lived in an urban area. Suits such as these tend to tear small communities apart: a sledgehammer to bludgeon the community into compliance where a scalpel might be more the appropriate tool. Exposure does more to breed tolerance than does force. Do not think for a minute that the townspeople will forget who they were bullied into submission and how that perception will manifest in their attitudes towards non-Christians and outsiders.

    That said, the law is the law, and the town will almost certainly address the issue rather than deal with a costly lawsuit.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    Sari – No, no, I get you. If AUSCS is being rude or petty, proper reporting could establish that.

    The way you phrased your first comment, “infringing on the rights of the other group”, seemed to imply that AUSCS was doing something illegal, though.

    I will note that “lack of courage to come forward” is a bit presumptuous, though. Considering that people who’ve tendered similar cases have suffered rape threats, death threats, vandalism, and so forth, I’m not quite sure the difference between ‘cowardice’ and ‘caution’ is so clear-cut.

  • sari

    Um, Ray, I’ve fought my share of fights against the dominant culture, both in the religious arena and in disability rights. So, yeah, I’m very familiar with the fallout that accompanies rocking the boat. My experiences have taught me that it is wise to pick one’s battles, and that finding a solution that everyone can live with requires both sides to make some concessions.

    But that’s me.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby Ross Jr.

    Are we still talking about journalism?


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