Mayor James Bellar of Whiteville, Tenn., calls FFRF members “terrorists” for advocating separation of City Hall and church.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a federal lawsuit Dec. 9 against the town of Whiteville, Tenn., and Mayor James Bellar to challenge crosses on the water tower, in front of City Hall and on the city-owned sidewalk.
FFRF is suing on behalf of a member who regularly comes into unwelcome contact with the cross displays. Whiteville has about 3,000 people.
FFRF, a national state/church watchdog, began complaining about a prominent lighted cross on the water tower a year ago. The only apparent response was that at some point in the spring, the town stopped lighting the cross. After writing three unanswered letters of complaint, FFRF, with Tennessee attorney Alvin Harris, sent a letter of demand Oct. 3 warning Bellar if he didn’t move the cross, FFRF would sue by the end of the month.
Bellar announced Oct. 3 that he would move the cross, although he referred to FFRF and its members as “terrorists” in local media reports.
But Oct. 17, Bellar told reporter Daniel Wilkerson of WBBJ-TV in Jackson, Tenn., that “Somebody has to stand up to these atheist sons of bitches, and you can quote me on that.”
In late October, Bellar used nearly $4,000 of taxpayer money to hire a crane service to inexplicably break one arm off the cross. Then he began lighting what remained of the cross. On or about Nov. 28, the town installed two large crosses in front of City Hall. About Nov. 30, defendants decorated the crosses with Christmas wreathes.
“Mr. Doe’s contact with the cross in front of the Whiteville City Hall is unwelcome and offensive to Mr. Doe,” notes the legal complaint. “The crosses on public property signify to Mr. Doe that Whiteville is only welcome to religious people (specifically Christians) and that as a nonreligious person, he is unwelcome in Whiteville.”
FFRF seeks a declaratory judgment that the policy and practice of defendants’ installation of religious symbols on Whiteville property is a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and deprives FFRF and its members of their civil rights.
FFRF seeks preliminary and permanent injunctions requiring immediate and permanent removal of the crosses, along with an injunction barring crosses and other religious symbolism on town property in the future.
According to a Nov. 21 article by Eric Snyder, Nashville Business Journal managing editor, Whiteville ranks toward the bottom in “brainpower” of 271 Tennessee cities, ranked by a “brainpower index” including high school graduation rates and percentage of residents with college degrees.
Many residents responded to FFRF’s October demand letter by placing hundreds of crosses on private property.
“What they don’t seem to understand is that there is no constitutional objection to crosses on private property. That’s where they belong — however distasteful crosses planted on lawns in the South are, particularly in a town called Whiteville,” commented Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president.
“On government property, crosses send a message of exclusion and even intimidation,” Gaylor said.
In an interview with WBBJ, the mayor even denied that the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause applies to states or cities.
The legal complaint can be read at FFRF’s website: