The Crucifix In Wicker Park by Mel Schlesinger (October 1994)

1994 Freethinker Of The Year

Mel Schlesinger was awarded the 1994 Freethinker Of The Year award, entailing a plaque and honorarium, for “his 10-year battle to keep state and church separate.” He initiated and was a plaintiff in a significant state/church victory. Mel and his wife Annette are new Life Members of the Foundation and Mel was just elected Foundation Treasurer. This acceptance speech was presented at the seventeenth annual convention of the Freedom From Religion Foundation on September 30, 1994.

By Mel Schlesinger

Wicker Park was deeded to North Township of Lake County, Indiana by members of the Mary H. Wicker family on June 24, 1925. Restriction: It must be called Wicker Park. 153 Acres. More land was purchased later. Today the park has 330 Acres. It is located in the Northwest Township in Indiana. The Township is six miles by six miles, bounded on the north by Lake Michigan, and on the west by the Illinois State line, Lansing, Illinois.

Wicker Park is used by all towns and cities in North Township. These include Highland, Munster, Hammond, Griffith, Whiting, East Chicago (Indiana), and Indiana Harbor. The Park and its facilities is under the control of the North Township Trustee and his three elected advisors. The Trustee also has the job of doling out money and food stamps to indigent people.

Wicker Park has an 18-hole golf course, swimming pool, tennis courts, a miniature golf area, a running track, picnic areas, playgrounds for children and adults, a beautiful meeting hall with cooking and serving facilities, a separate restaurant, a maintenance workshop with offices, etc.

Wicker Park was dedicated by President Calvin Coolidge on June 14, 1927, as a recreational memorial to the soldiers and sailors who died in the service of the United States.

The 4th Degree Knights of Columbus, of the Abraham Lincoln General Assembly, whose building is located in East Chicago, Indiana (about one mile away), concocted a scheme to erect 25 giant crucifixes at prominent highway locations all over northwest Indiana. The purpose, as explained to a Chicago Tribune reporter, was to put the fear of God into the hearts of the inhabitants of this area as they drive by the crucifixes.

Before the erection of the monument, the Knights of Columbus told the Hammond Times, and others, that they were donating a “War Memorial” to the fallen soldiers and sailors of the United States.

Surprise! On Oct. 15, 1955, the “War Memorial” was unveiled, and it turned out to be a regular crucifix, with a 6-foot figure of a man being tortured to death on it. It was 16′ high, plus the 2.5′ concrete pedestal. Protests were made by Protestants, Jews, Atheists, Moslems, Buddhists, and others. After much protestation in the newspapers, churches, and radio, the Knights of Columbus reluctantly decided to erect only five of them; but they erected only three.

The crucifix in Wicker Park was located at the most prominent corner of the park, corner of Rt. 6 (Ridge Road) and Rt. 41 (Indianapolis Blvd). There was a small 11″x11″ bronze plaque, dated Oct. 16, 1955, on the crucifix, stating that it was a memorial to our soldiers, attached to the vertical beam about four feet above the base. The plaque was soon overgrown with evergreens, and was later lost or stolen. No one noticed it when it was there, and no one missed it when it was gone.

The people of North Township are mostly religious. We have large numbers of Roman Catholics, Eastern Rite Catholics, people of Dutch descent who are Dutch Reformed Christians, many Baptists (one Baptist church in Hammond has a 10,000 person Sunday School–they once made the worldÕs biggest ice cream Sundae, in a rain trough, for the children).

It was a problem for me to take action to remove the crucifix while operating a sizable real estate office in Hammond. We listed and sold real estate all over North Township of Lake County. I could not take action until we retired in 1980.

I spoke to the Indiana branch of the ACLU, the ICLU. On Aug. 5, 1981 I wrote a letter to the ICLU requesting action to remove the crucifix. The legal committee discussed the case, and decided to help. They asked for additional plaintiffs. Four other members volunteered to become plaintiffs. It is always good to have more than one plaintiff. Many reasons: less danger of personal injury to any one of us. Having more than one plaintiff takes the heat off. They canÕt just bomb my house. TheyÕd have to bomb all six! It made sure of “Legal Standing” of at least one or two of us.

We were lucky to have a Professor of Law, Ivan Bodensteiner, who was a member of the ACLU. He was the head of the Law Department of Valparaiso University, which is only about thirty miles from Wicker Park. He was willing to undertake the lawsuit (even though he is a Catholic). He is a very nice and competent lawyer.

On Oct. 7th, 1982, I received a letter from Ivan, stating that the ACLU would send a letter to the Township authorities asking them to remove the crucifix or we would file a lawsuit. I agreed to pay the initial court costs of $100.00. Our suit was filed in the Federal Court in Hammond, Indiana on June 24, 1983.

There was a meeting of the plaintiffs and their lawyers, and the representatives and lawyers of the defendants, for “discovery.” This is a formal interrogation of the plaintiffs to get information to determine whether they have “standing” to institute the law suit. They must show that they are damaged by the crucifix being in the park.

“Standing” items: Taxes paid to the Township. Non-use of facilities, etc.

Then, the Federal District Judge, Michael S. Kanne, who had jurisdiction over this case, sat upon it, and did nothing for five years. He was then elevated to the 7th Circuit Federal Court in Chicago. The case, by February 1988, was then in the hands of Judge Moody, but he was too busy to rule on it.

In the spring of 1988 it was turned over to Judge Rudy Lozano, who sat on it for four years. How we finally got action from Judge Lozano: we created a news event.

We planned to picket the crucifix. We notified reporters, newspapers, the police of every town, and the sheriff of Lake County. FFRF notified its Indiana members.

For one hour on Sunday, July 12th, 1992, we picketed the crucifix in Wicker Park. I had made eight signs, 2’x3′, but had been warned not to attach any wood or metal to them, so they could not be used as weapons with which to hit us. The signs were all cardboard. Some said “Separate Church & State.” Others said “Crucifix in Park is Illegal.”

The park was swarming with people. About a dozen were on our side. About 19 were police officers to prevent a riot. One was a Canine Unit officer with his police dog. About twenty were reporters from every newspaper and radio station in our area. The rest were religious people in various stages of anger. There were quite a few loud arguments between believers and atheists, but no physical fighting, thanks to the police contingent.

The next day there was a petition drive by the churches. Judge Rudy Lozano was inundated with 1,500 signatures on petitions requesting that he immediately render a decision to allow the crucifix to remain in the park. Happily, he did so, in July, 1992. It was the best thing that happened in ten years. His rulings were ridiculous, but they allowed us to file an appeal to the 7th Circuit Court in Chicago.

The appeal was argued on March 29, 1993. A decision in our favor was handed down in September 1993, requiring that the crucifix be removed without delay, and that the Township must pay the defendants for their frustration and discomfiture, and their attorneys for their work.

Final results: the crucifix has been moved to a churchyard. It has been replaced by an everlasting gas flame mounted on a rectangular 4’x6’x4′ stone war memorial which had been constructed months earlier in anticipation of the inevitable decision. The Township Trustee must have known that he would lose this case.

Our lawyers have asked for $60,000 dollars for their work, which must be paid by the Township. We, the plaintiffs are to receive $3,000 each to compensate us for our having to endure this struggle. I do not know when these sums will be paid.

Mel is retired after 30 years operating a real estate office with his wife Annette. They have been married for 53 years and have three children. Mel has a B.S. degree from the University of Chicago, and worked as a chemist until joining the Air Force in World War II.

Freedom From Religion Foundation