FFRF skeptical about Texas city’s cross sale

FFRF cautiously welcomes a Texas city’s decision to deed a piece of public land with a cross to a church, but is skeptical about the terms of the sale and the future of the site.

The Port Neches City Council sold a portion of Riverfront Park containing a 10-foot Latin cross to the First United Methodist Church for only $100. FFRF had written letters to Mayor Glenn Johnson in November and January objecting to the cross on public property as an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion.

“The City Council’s move does show the local government fully realizes that you can’t have religious symbols on public land,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “However, the means by which the city divested itself of the cross raises concerns.”

FFRF questions whether the city’s motives are secular, given that the community outcry against FFRF’s complaint was led by the mayor. He showed up at a rally held by supporters of the cross in November and spoke against FFRF’s “attack” on “our cross,” vowing, “We may lose . . . but I’m just telling you this: When we come out of the fight, [FFRF] will have two black eyes, a broken leg, and a broken arm. . . . And we may look worse, but they’ll know they have been in a fight.”

The low sale price could mean that the church was given preferential treatment, and a close watch needs to be kept, FFRF says, on how the church’s plot will be differentiated from the adjacent taxpayer-funded park.

FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert tells the Beaumont Enterprise that a “reasonable person” should be able to see where the park ends and the church property begins and suggests that it be marked with signs as church property and fenced off.
United Methodist Church pastor Wesley Welborn says the church has no intention to make any changes to the land around the cross.

“We’re not going to put a fence up, for certain,” he tells the Enterprise. “There are no plans right now to put any signs up. Our plans are to leave it as-is.”

FFRF even presented Port Neches with a better deal for the land, offering $2,000 for that 400-square-foot parcel.

“In these times of fiscal austerity and municipal bankruptcies, we are trying to ensure that a city has resources to provide essential public services to its residents,” says Gaylor. “$2000 will make that 20 times more certain than $100.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation