Judge: Cross in park must come down

The Freedom From Religion Foundation and the American Humanist Association (AHA) combined for a major legal victory with a judge’s ruling June 19 against a massive cross in a Florida public park. Unfortunately, the city is needlessly appealing the ruling.

The 34-foot white Latin cross, owned by the city of Pensacola, dominates the public Bayview Park. The cross is also the site of numerous Easter services, frequently co-hosted by Christian churches. A plaque specifically referencing Easter sits at the base of a platform near the cross.

FFRF and the AHA’s Appignani Legal Center filed the suit against the city after residents of Pensacola, who objected to the cross on public property, contacted them. When the city refused to respond to warning letters and remove the cross from government property, the groups teamed up to take legal action in May 2016.

On June 19, Senior U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson ruled that “the Bayview Cross can no longer stand as a permanent fixture on city-owned property.” He added, “The law is the law.”

Vinson ordered the cross removed within 30 days. The ruling came down less than a week after oral arguments were heard on June 14.

The city has unfortunately decided to appeal the case to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Pensacola law firm Beggs & Lane currently represents the city in the case, on which city officials have spent more than $80,000 of tax money. The city’s decision to appeal seems to have been bolstered by the offer of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty to represent it for free. Taxpayers are still on the hook for legal fees when FFRF and AHA win. The Becket Fund is a theocracy-rationalizing organization that FFRF has sparred with in the past and knows only too well. FFRF and the AHA are committed to seeing this case through to its rightful end.

The decision by Vinson, a senior federal judge for the Northern District of Florida – Pensacola Division appointed by President Reagan, can, however, most charitably be characterized as begrudging. It was marred by ill-informed excursions into the history of the First Amendment.

“The historical record indicates that the Founding Fathers did not intend for the Establishment Clause to ban crosses and religious symbols from public property,” Vinson erroneously stated, and went on to castigate the U.S. Supreme Court for its recent rulings on the separation of state and church.

The case was decided on clear, settled legal grounds. “This is not a ‘borderline case,'” Vinson stated. “The Bayview Cross clearly has a primarily — if not exclusively — religious purpose.”

Hence, it’s a waste of both sides’ time and money for Pensacola to appeal.

FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor notes that public parks are for the public — of all religious beliefs and no religious beliefs, and it’s so obvious why sectarian symbols do not belong there.

“We are pleased that the court struck down this cross as violative of the First Amendment,” says Monica Miller, senior counsel at the Appignani Humanist Legal Center. “The cross was totally unavoidable to park patrons, and to have citizens foot the bill for such a religious symbol is both unfair and unconstitutional.”

Plaintiffs are Amanda Kondrat’yev; Andreiy Kondrat’yev; David Suhor and Andre Ryland. The case was brought by both AHA’s Miller and legal director David Niose and FFRF Staff Attorneys Rebecca Markert and Madeline Ziegler. Case 3:16-cv-00195-RV-CJK.

Freedom From Religion Foundation