A towering cross in a public park in Pensacola, Fla., can stay where it is because it has been there for more than 50 years, a federal appeals court ruled in February.
The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a lawsuit sponsored by the American Humanist Association (AHA), and the Freedom From Religion Foundation and said that the 34-foot cross in Bayview Park doesn’t have to be removed.
The court based its opinion on a 2019 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that allowed a 40-foot cross, allegedly a war memorial, to stand because it had been erected 100 years ago. The court majority argued that although the cross is the central symbol of the Christian faith, it can take on secular meaning over time. That case, American Legion v. American Humanist Association, was also brought by the AHA.
“Removal of the Bayview Park cross at this point – more than 75 years after its original erection and more than 50 years after its replacement with the current concrete version – could well, in the Supreme Court’s words, ‘strike many as aggressively hostile to religion,’” the appeals court said.
The appeals court also noted that many different types of activities have taken place in the park, many of them non-religious in nature.
“Moreover, the cross, bandstand, and surrounding area have hosted many community gatherings – including boat festivals, fundraising walks, outdoor movie nights, and weddings – and there is no evidence that the City has ever made the space available to the public on anything other than a neutral basis,” declared the court.
Two of the judges on the three-member court indicated that they believe the plaintiffs who brought the case did not have legal “standing” – that is, the right to sue. The plaintiffs argued that they were offended by the presence of the cross on public land, but the two judges ruled that that should not be enough to trigger a lawsuit.
Pensacola’s mayor, Grover Robinson, told the Pensacola News Journal that he was pleased by the ruling.
“It’s been there for a long time to recognize those who served in our military and given their lives,” Robinson said. “So again, very happy to see that it will still be a part of our community into the future as it has been in the past.”
But Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the AHA, criticized the decision in the Kondrat’yev v. City of Pensacola case.
“It is troubling to see the court attack the principle of church-state separation that was held dear by our Founders,” Speckhardt said. “Today’s decision is part of the Religious Right’s ongoing crusade to privilege Christianity at the expense of true religious freedom for all.”