Americans United for Separation of Church and State, joined by 13 religious and civil-rights organizations, today urged a federal appeals court to support religious freedom by affirming that a towering cross erected in the City of Pensacola’s Bayview Park is unconstitutional because it is a clear example of government endorsing religion.
“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,” said Richard B. Katskee, legal director of Americans United. “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.”
AU and the allied organizations filed the friend-of-the-court brief with the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Kondrat’yev v. City of Pensacola. Joining the brief were the American Civil Liberties Union; the ACLU of Florida; the Anti-Defamation League; the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty; the Center for Inquiry; the Central Conference of American Rabbis; Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America; the Jewish Social Policy Action Network; Muslim Advocates; the National Council of Jewish Women; the Sikh Coalition; the Union for Reform Judaism; and Women of Reform Judaism.
The 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.”
While supporting the ultimate opinion of the District Court in Northern Florida that the Pensacola cross is unconstitutional, AU and allies dispute the court’s suggestion 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.
“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,” the brief states. It concludes: “The judgment of the court below should be affirmed; the criticism of settled precedent and the fundamental values that it embodies should not.”
The brief was authored for Americans United by Katskee, Legal Fellow Andrew L. Nellis and legal intern Alex Zacharczenko.
Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.