Saying “Somebody has to stand up to these atheist sons of bitches, and you can quote me on that,” the mayor of Whiteville, Tenn., announced on Oct. 17 that he will fight the Freedom From Religion Foundation in federal court over the illegal cross atop the town’s water tower.
After FFRF sent three previous letters of complaint, which were ignored, FFRF hired Nashville attorney Alvin Harris, who sent a Sept. 29 demand letter to Mayor James Bellar: “If you fail to comply with this demand within 30 days from the date of this letter, the FFRF and its Whiteville member will have little choice but to sue you and the Town in the United States District Court for the Western District of Tennessee.”
Bellar announced on Oct. 3 that he would move the cross. However, the governing board voted to let the Alliance Defense Fund, a wealthy Christian-right legal firm, “explore other options” besides moving it. Bellar next told reporter Daniel Wilkerson, WBBJ-TV, in Jackson, Tenn., that he had changed his mind, and will fight FFRF in court.
FFRF had cautioned the town to be careful about accepting outside legal representation: “The town must consider the substantial costs involved in litigating an issue that is settled by the courts. When we won a case against Rhea County Schools in Tennessee for unlawful religious instruction in its schools, the District Court awarded over $120,000 for plaintiffs’ attorney fees and costs. This amount does not include substantial defense costs. This amount was separate from the substantial fees paid to Rhea County’s defense lawyers.”
In the initial letter to Bellar late last year, FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert noted: “It is unlawful for the Town of Whiteville to display a patently religious symbol such as a Christian cross on public property. The Whiteville cross, displayed on the Town water tower, unabashedly creates the perception of government endorsement of Christianity. It conveys the message to the twenty-six percent of the U.S. population who are not Christians that they are not ‘favored members of the political community.’ ”
Bellar admitted to the Jackson Sun he’d given FFRF the brush-off. “They’ve been writing me since December of 2010. I took it upon myself just to ignore them.”
He told Fox News Radio that FFRF’s “cause in life [is] to ride up and down the highway and find small towns that maybe have a religious symbol somewhere on public property. I have to admit it — checking their website, they’re batting 100 percent on this stuff.”
“I think he has us confused with Google Earth,” said FFRF Co-President Dan Barker. (An online commenter posted, “If that’s really what Freedom From Religion is doing, they are even more awesome than I thought. I grew up in these oppressively Christian small towns, and I would have loved someone to ride into town and show me how to stand up for my rights!”)
“A terrorist is more than a guy that flies the planes into the building,” Bellar told Fox. “If they can disrupt your routine in life, that’s what they want to do. They are terrorists as far as I’m concerned.”
Far from the truth, responded Barker. “He’s the one who is against diversity, against religious freedom, and yet because we complain, and point out the fact that he’s breaking the law, he calls us the terrorist?”
The Jackson Sun editorialized about the controversy, asking the town to remove the cross.
“To our fellow Christians who may disagree, we issue a respectful challenge borrowed from a local church youth production: God doesn’t call governments to be Christians, he calls Christians to be Christians,” the editorial said. “The government is not the instrument to spread God’s word. We are.”
FFRF’s efforts on behalf of a local complainant and Tennessee members have brought hundreds of nasty emails and phone calls into the FFRF office, along with a serious death threat being investigated by the Dane County (Wis.) District Attorney’s Office.
FFRF has also acted on local complaints about a cross atop a water tower in nearby Somerville, Tenn., but currently lacks a resident willing to be a plaintiff.