The Freedom From Religion Foundation, along with the American Humanist Association, filed suit against the city of Pensacola, Fla., to challenge a 25-foot-tall Christian cross in a public park.
According to the lawsuit filed May 4, the white Christian cross dominates Bayview Park, where it is maintained by the city. 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.
"There are tax-free churches throughout Pensacola where this pinnacle symbol of Christianity may be appropriately displayed," said Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president.
"But when a city park serving all citizens — nonreligious, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim and Christian — contains a towering Latin cross, this sends a message of exclusion to non-Christians, and a corresponding message to Christians that they are favored citizens."
But not everyone understands this.
Florida state Rep. Matt Gaetz, who is a candidate for the U.S. House, wrote an op-ed in the Pensacola News Journal on May 15.
"We need leadership in Washington that understands America is a Christian nation founded on Christian values," an ill-informed Gaetz writes. "I hope you will join me in praying for the courts to make the right decision and dismiss the lawsuit."
Gaetz also seems to think that majority rule should trump the Constitution.
"The extremist groups that filed this lawsuit . . . as well as liberal Amanda Kondrat'yev, who is running [against Gaetz] for the 1st Congressional District, make a mockery of the right to religious freedom. They do not share the values of Northwest Florida."
Kondrat'yev is one of the four individual plaintiffs in the suit. Gaetz has challenged her to a debate over the cross. No date has been set.
"The way I see it, having a cross in a park that's supposed to be for everybody is obviously showing preference to one religion over another," Kondrat'yev writes. "If it were a satanic symbol or a Muslim symbol, they would be livid. . . . The cross towers above the trees and it's a clear violation of our constitutional rights. My grandfather and father are both U.S. military veterans, and this is not what they fought for at all."
The Pensacola News Journal itself took a stand against the lawsuit, using bizarre logic in its editorial on May 6.
"The Bayview Cross is not a government endorsement of religion," the editorial states. "It's simply there, and that's why it ought to be left alone."
But Brian Curtis, who commented on the online article, called the newspaper on its faulty reasoning.
"We'll see a good demonstration of just how religious it is as soon as the suggestion is made to take it down," he writes. "Suddenly the air will be filled with cries of 'war on Christianity!'"
For at least the past 15 years, the city has received requests from citizens to remove the cross. In July 2015, FFRF and AHA sent warnings to the city that the public display and maintenance of the cross was a form of religious endorsement by the government. The city did not respond to these complaints. The local plaintiffs are nonbelievers who feel marginalized and excluded by their government's display of a large Christian symbol.
The federal lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court, Northern District of Florida, Pensacola Division, asks the court to declare that the Bayview cross is unconstitutional. It also asks the court to require the city to remove the Bayview Cross and to prohibit displaying Christian crosses on public land in the future.
FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert and Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler represent the plaintiffs, along with AHA Legal Director David Niose and Senior Counsel Monica Miller.
The case, no. 3:16-cv-00195, sits before Judge Roger Vinson, a Ronald Reagan appointee.