Foundation Pursues Roadside Religion Violations (May 1995)

Officials in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, and its state highway commission have been stonewalling since the Freedom From Religion Foundation went public with its objections to a large cross–memorializing prayers by three Catholic missionaries to convert Native Americans in 1699–which is on a state right of way near Cape Girardeau, Missouri. (See April 1995)

The Southeast Missourian initially reported on March 29 that an official in Jefferson City was considering moving the concrete cross because state right of way was expanded a few years ago. “We’re looking into possibly relocating that to somewhere off of the right of way,” said state official Tom Dollus.

Following public outcry, officials contradicted themselves, reporting that they were planning to give a 9-foot-wide section of land containing the cross and its religious inscription to the adjoining property owner. The reason? The state suddenly realized it had too much right of way.

“While we appreciated the state’s recognition that it should not own property with religious symbols on it, of course we also objected to a give-away of public land for religious purposes. It appeared the State of Missouri was more interested in having the cross remain on the spot then in protecting the interests of the state,” noted Annie Laurie Gaylor, who is handling the Foundation’s complaint.

In the next development, the Missouri Highway Commission admitted it had no authority to give away the land. Then it voted at its April 7 meeting that it had no authority to do anything at all about the cross, period.

“Are the people going to let somebody from Wisconsin tell them what to do?” said Highway Commissioner John Oliver Jr. of Cape Girardeau. “We’re not likely to surrender that to anybody.”

More stonewalling is expected when the commission meets in May.

Some of the hate language decried recently by President Clinton has been directed to the Foundation over this matter. The Southeastern Missourian, Cape Girardeau’s newspaper, printed nearly a full page of anonymous “Speak Out” comments on March 31, including this choice hate remark:

“As if we didn’t have enough storm troopers from our big-brother government, we now have the self-appointed Gestapo of the Freedom From Religion Foundation poking their noses into our business and exposing their ignorance. Anyone but a fool knows that the Cape LaCroix cross is an historical monument. Annie Gayler (sic), whose ignorance is only exceeded by her arrogance, apparently doesn’t have anything useful to do and should be put to work picking up trash from the highway she’s misusing. She and her organization should be treated as any other vermin: stepped on and sprayed with a toxic substance.”

Others voiced such “original” ideas as, “If people don’t like God, they can move out of the United States” and “Tell them to move to Russia.”

The Southeast Missourian editorialized on April 1, 1995:

“Anti-religious zealots are trying to wipe any mention of God and religion from the face of government. . . . This is the same group that is trying to remove ‘In God We Trust’ from U.S. currency. And it is the same group that is suing Colorado for having the Ten Commandments on a stone in the state Capitol. If they win, Missouri’s Capitol Jefferson City may be next.

“Where will it all end. Next the group may target our city cemeteries, which contain several crosses. Will graves have to be dug up if ancestors want loved ones to stay with their original monuments?

“. . . Bit by bit, all religious references are disappearing from government and education. This mirrors a rise in violence, corruption and family decay in America. . . . Three cheers for the highway department. It has enabled Missourians to return to the notion of majority rule.”

If you think the editorial staff at this newspaper has been listening to too much of their hometown boy Rush Limbaugh (we’ve never heard the gravedigging accusation before!) write: Southeastern Missourian, PO Box 699, Cape Girardeau, MO 63702-0699. Letters may be sent to the Department of Highways & Transportation, PO Box 270, Jefferson City MO 65102.

Similar stonewalling has greeted the Foundation’s newest complaint about religious symbols on public right of ways. In April the Foundation complained to the Mayor of Wellsville, Ohio, and the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) over the illegal placement of a sign saying “Jesus Is Lord of Wellsville” near state Route 7.

A recent news article from the Lisbon Morning Journal reported that the city council of Wellsville voted to place the proselytizing sign 11 years ago, also seeking explicit permission from the ODOT. Permission from both public bodies was once again sought when the sign was recently replaced. The back side reads: “I love you, come to me personally . . . Jesus.” It stands right next to the official Wellsville identification sign.

“One is reminded of the signs that used to appear in the Deep South warning Blacks not to show their faces after sundown. The message this sends is that the community is exclusively Christian and that nonChristians–Jews, atheists and agnostics, among others–are not welcome,” wrote Gaylor to the mayor. She noted: “This is not a friendly message. It’s a message of a conquering religion.”

The Foundation pointed out that the presence of the sign on public property violates Art. I, Sect. 7 of the Ohio Constitution, mandating that “nobody shall be compelled to . . . maintain any form of worship” and that “no preference shall be given, by law, to any religious society.”

No official replies have been received from Ohio officials. However, the mayor has told various reporters that he suddenly realized the sign is not even on city property after all these years. Mayor Wayne Elliott, who described himself as a “born again Christian” to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, also contacted Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law and Justice.

Randall Howard of ODOT told the Cleveland Plain Dealer that the agency is cracking down by federal order on billboards, and will look over the Wellsville sign “in due course,” but “would be basically blind to the religious message.”

You may write Jerry Wray, Director, Ohio Department of Transportation, at 25 S Front St., Columbus OH 43215 or Mayor Wayne Elliot, 1200 Main St., Wellsville OH 43968.

To Be Continued . . .

Freedom From Religion Foundation