October 2018 Church & State - October 2018

Appeals Court Reluctantly Strikes Down Display Of Cross In Fla. City

  Rob Boston

A federal appeals court has ruled that officials in Pensacola, Fla., must remove a cross from a public park, but two judges made it clear they were doing so only reluctantly.

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Sept. 7 that the cross in Bayview Park should come down. The court noted that it must abide by the precedent established by a 35-year-old case from Georgia involving the display of a towering cross in a state park there.

Two judges on the three-judge panel made it clear they were not happy with the ruling they were compelled to make.

“Placing a cross in a public park that many people have enjoyed for decades, that stands mute and motionless, that oppresses no one, that requires nothing of anyone, and that commands nothing does not violate the [separation of church and state],” wrote Judge Charles Ashley Royal. “Nor is it religious oppression. The cross can only cast a shadow; it cannot cast any harm.”

A wooden cross was first placed in the park in 1941 by the local chapter of the Junior Chamber of Commerce, reported the website Law.com. The current cross, which is 34 feet high and made of concrete, dates to 1969 and is now maintained by the government. Several Pensacola residents said they found the religious symbol’s presence in a public park offensive. They sued, backed by the American Humanist Association and the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

Pensacola Mayor Ashton Hayward criticized the ruling, asserting in a press release, “This cross is more than a religious symbol. It’s an important part of our city’s history and culture.”

Earlier this year, Americans Uni­ted and other organizations filed a brief in the case arguing that the cross should be removed from government property.

“[T]he architects of the First Amendment effected a separation of government and religion as the means to ensure enduring religious freedom,” the brief argued. “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.” (Kondrat’Yev v. City of Pensacola)

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