Petulant mayor breaks cross to abide by First Amendment

Whiteville, Tenn., certainly isn't "Pleasantville" for non-Christians with James Bellar behind the civic wheel, but the mayor of that Tennessee town finally and very grudgingly agreed that a water tower cross had to go.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has, for now called off plans to sue the town by the end of the week over the First Amendment violation. But the national state/church watchdog with 17,000 members, including over 200 in Tennessee, called Bellar's remedy "bizarre," and says it will closely monitor the situation.

Mayor James R. Bellar sent a letter yesterday to FFRF's attorney advising him that "there is no longer a Latin cross atop the Whiteville water tower." Bellar attached an invoice of nearly $4,000 from a crane service. He inexplicably asked the firm to lop off one arm of the Latin cross, leaving what looks a bit like a gallows (or a broken cross).

FFRF sent a polite response to the Mayor, despite his many statements defaming FFRF and its potential plaintiff as "terrorists."

"We hope that this action will send a message to other municipalities to honor the Establishment Clause of our First Amendment, and to respect freedom of conscience, including the diversity of beliefs and of nonbelief, by keeping religion out of government," FFRF Co-Presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor wrote.

After receiving a demand letter on behalf of FFRF by Nashville attorney Alvin Harris, Bellar initially announced on Oct. 3 that he would move the cross. Then he changed his mind.

On Oct. 17, Bellar told reporter Daniel Wilkerson, WBBJ-TV in Jackson, Tenn., that "Somebody has to stand up to these atheist sons of bitches, and you can quote me on that."

FFRF, on behalf of a local complainant, had written four unanswered letters of complaint since last December to the Town of Whiteville protesting the illegal lighted display.

"We're looking a little cross-eyed at the mayor's strange action and, his vindictive and unprofessional statements, but we are satisfied, for now, that there is no longer a Latin cross on governmental property," noted Gaylor.

Gaylor warned that if the town restores the Latin cross (an action hinted at in the mayor's letter), it will sue.

"What is most flabbergasting is the decision by this intemperate mayor to waste nearly $4,000 in tax dollars to essentially mutilate a religious symbol, rather than remove it. A careful administrator would not have indulged in such folly. The town could even have made some money had it auctioned the cross to bidders. We would encourage the town council to investigate the mayor's action," said Gaylor.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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