A federal appeals court heard oral argument yesterday about whether a large cross on public property in Florida violates religious freedom. Americans United and allies had filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, urging the court to affirm that governmental display of the cross is unconstitutional.

Pensacola has maintained the 34-foot cross in the city-owned Bayview Park for decades. In 2016, several residents raised objections to the city’s displaying a religious symbol in a public park because it sends the message that the city prefers one religion above all others – and that those in the community who do not share that faith are outsiders.

When city officials refused to remove the cross, the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the American Humanist Association filed a lawsuit, Kondrat’yev v. City of Pensacola, on behalf of the residents, Amanda and Andreiy Kondrat’yev, Andre Ryland and David Suhor.

The U.S. District Court in Northern Florida ruled last June that the Bayview Park cross was unconstitutional and ordered it to be removed within 30 days. But when Becket – the conservative Christian legal group representing the city – appealed the decision, the removal order was suspended.

Although U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson ruled in favor of church-state separation, he included some troubling remarks in his opinion – suggesting courts have misinterpreted the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom and that the Constitution’s framers would have allowed governmental displays of religion.

That’s why AU – joined by 13 religious and civil-rights organizations – filed a brief in the case. Not only did we want to encourage the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to affirm the lower court’s ruling, but we wanted to set the record straight about why government neutrality when it comes to religion protects religious freedom for all.

“[T]he architects of the First Amendment effected a separation of government and religion as the means to ensure enduring religious freedom,” our brief states. “As our Nation has become increasingly religiously diverse, that aim is more critical than ever. The official display of the Latin cross – the preeminent symbol of Christianity – sends divisive and harmful messages that are directly contrary to this fundamental objective: It tells members of other religions, or of no religion, that they are excluded, second-class citizens.”

AU Legal Director Richard B. Katskee explained, “Our history and our courts have been clear: Government cannot promote one faith above all others. Doing so would divide communities along religious lines and reduce some citizens to second-class status. That’s why Pensacola’s cross cannot be squared with the Constitution.”

We hope the 11th Circuit agrees that the cross must be removed from city-owned property. Pensacola’s public parks should be welcoming, inclusive places for all members of the community, not spaces that perpetuate divisions in society and exclude people.

(Photo: Pensacola's Bayview Park cross. Credit: Exhibit from the lawsuit Kondrat’yev v. City of Pensacola, filed by Freedom From Religion Foundation and American Humanist Association.)