FFRF’s request to remove religious displays from Mississippi park upsets residents

Singing hymns and chanting, hundreds of residents of a small Mississippi town gathered on the street before a council meeting in early November to defend the city’s pervasive religious park decorations. FFRF sent a complaint letter Oct. 19 about the unconstitutional displays.

“Before Tuesday night’s board of aldermen meeting, downtown Collins quickly began to feel like a church,” said television reporter Candace Coleman of WHLT in Hattiesburg in a Nov. 4 story. “Hundreds of people crowded the street to speak out against a complaint the city received from the Freedom from Religion Foundation.”

Bettie D. Robertson Memorial Park is filled with life-size or larger religious displays. Included are three large Latin crosses, a statue of Jesus carrying a cross next to a lighted New Testament verse, a large globe with the “City of Collins” on a banner above a picture of Jesus, a display depicting Jesus walking on water suspended above the lake, a mural cut-out of Jesus hanging from a tree, a small chapel with a cross atop it (with angels next to it) and a nativity scene.

The displays, many of which are lighted, are up all year. The nativity scene is unveiled in December. The sheer number of religious displays in the park is the most FFRF has ever encountered in one case.

FFRF Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell sent the city (pop. 2,500) a letter on behalf of a local complainant: “Citizens of all faiths and no faith have an equal right to use city parks without being surrounded by symbols promoting any one religion. A city cannot have a ‘Christian’ park.”

Dozens of Collins residents spoke at the city meeting in favor of keeping the displays up, apparently not realizing that the Constitution’s Establishment Clause is not based on majority rule.

One woman told WHLT that non-Christians should more or less just ignore the decorations. “All they have to do is go through the park, not notice those figures and say, ‘Well, that’s a silly old man standing in water or a man carrying a cross on his shoulder,’ ” said Dot Donovan of Collins.

Another Collins resident said the city welcomes everyone, except apparently those who are offended by religious displays. “Everybody is welcome here,” said Vickie Mooney. “We love everybody, but if you are offended by the way that we do things, then you can just leave.”

FFRF is awaiting word from the city on what it plans to do about the displays. Collins Mayor V.O. Smith said he has no plans to take them down but said he’s speaking with attorneys in case FFRF would pursue a lawsuit. Stay tuned.

Freedom From Religion Foundation