Two of the country’s leading secular organizations have achieved a big legal victory today with a ruling against a massive cross in a Florida public park.
The 34-foot white Latin cross that the city of Pensacola owns, displays and funds dominates the Bayview Park. The cross is also the site of numerous Easter Sunrise services, frequently co-hosted by Christian churches. A plaque specifically referencing Easter sits at the base of a platform near the cross.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation and the American Humanist Association’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 Monday, 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 pithily added, “The law is the law.”
Vinson ordered the cross removed within 30 days. The ruling came down speedily less than a week after oral arguments were heard on June 14. The city could appeal the case to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
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.
FFRF is appreciative, in a way, that a judge with this perspective still comprehends the illegality of the Bayview Cross.
“Even this judge had to agree he had no choice but to find this government-owned, 34-foot cross in a public park in violation of the Constitution,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “The Constitution holds and reason has prevailed.”
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.”
Vinson echoed that sentiment in his ruling. After the unfortunate starting digression, he went in the right direction.
“This is not a ‘borderline case,’” he stated. “The Bayview Cross clearly has a primarily — if not exclusively — religious purpose.”
The judgment can be read here.
Plaintiffs are Amanda Kondrat’yev; Andreiy Kondrat’yev; David Suhor and Andre Ryland. The case was brought by both FFRF and AHA, and handled by AHA’s senior counsel Monica Miller and legal director David Niose, and FFRF staff attorneys Rebecca Markert and Madeline Ziegler. Case 3:16-cv-00195-RV-CJK
The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational charity, is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics), and has been working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate. With more than 29,000 members, the organization also educates the pubic about nontheism. Founded in 1941 and headquartered in Washington, D.C., the American Humanist Association (AHA) works to protect the rights of humanists, atheists and other nontheistic Americans. The AHA advances the ethical and life-affirming philosophy of humanism, which — without beliefs in any gods or other supernatural forces — encourages individuals to live informed and meaningful lives that aspire to the greater good of humanity.