January 2018 Church & State | People & Events

Americans United on Nov. 22 was joined by 13 religious and civil-rights organizations in urging a federal appeals court to affirm that a towering cross in a Florida public park is unconstitutional.

AU and allies filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Kondrat’yev v. City of Pensacola, a case challenging the 34-foot cross that was erected in Pensacola’s Bayview Park by a civic organization in 1969 and has been maintained by the city ever since. The case was filed in 2016 by the American Humanist Association and the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

AU’s brief states: “[T]he architects of the First Amendment effected a separation of government and religion as the means to ensure enduring religious freedom. 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.”

U.S. District Court Judge Roger Vinson in June ruled the cross was unconstitutional and initially ordered it to be removed within 30 days, but he suspended that order a few weeks later when Becket – the conservative Christian legal group representing the city – appealed his decision.

Although Vinson ruled against the cross, he suggested in his order that the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom has been misinterpreted and that the Constitution’s framers would have supported governmental displays of religion.

The brief filed by AU and allies countered Vinson’s interpretation of religious freedom and history. It asserted, “We respectfully submit that the district court’s view of history is incorrect; and the implications of that misunderstanding threaten to corrode the First Amendment’s essential protections for religious freedom.”

AU Legal Director Richard B. Kats­kee noted, “Since the founding of our country, the Constitution has protected the freedom of conscience of all Americans by ensuring that government does not endorse a particular faith or interfere with personal choices about whether and how to worship. 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.”

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