Public displays of Christianity cause tension in various cities

Thursday, May 7, 1998







Republic, Mo., ...
Republic, Mo., town
seal.
Legal battles over the
constitutionality of Christian symbols in public places are forming in several
cities throughout the country.

In Elkhart, Ind., two residents represented by the Indiana Civil Liberties
Union filed a federal lawsuit on Tuesday against the city seeking the removal a
40-year-old monument to the Ten Commandments that sits outside the city's
courthouse.


The ICLU lawsuit claims the monument's placement on public property violates
the separation of church and state.


“The issue in this case is not whether the Ten Commandments are a valid
religious document,” said Kenneth Falk, ICLU legal director. “The Ten
Commandments are, of course, of importance to both the Jewish and the Christian
faith. However, the First Amendment requires government neutrality in matters of
religious belief and precludes government from endorsing any religious
formulation.”


City officials, however, have said that the granite monument was donated to
the city and that they have no plans to remove it.


Over the last several months, the ICLU has kept busy filing and settling
lawsuits regarding public displays of the Ten Commandments. After city
commissioners in Grant, Hendricks and Morgan counties voted to post the Ten
Commandments in government buildings, the ICLU filed federal lawsuits against
all three counties. Late last year, the ICLU settled its suit with the Grant
County commission after it agreed to post other historical documents along with
the commandments.


A Wisconsin-based legal and educational group dedicated to removing all
public displays of religion got involved in the battle by sending a letter to
every county commission in Indiana urging them not to “succumb to pressure
tactics to turn courthouses into advertisements for one religion's teachings …
.”


That group — the Freedom from Religion Foundation — recently discovered a
Christian symbol that it claims needs to be removed from a public park in
Marshfield, Wis.


The group's dissatisfaction centers on a statue of Jesus Christ in the park.
In a federal lawsuit filed against Marshfield officials, the group argues that
the city has violated the First Amendment's separation of church and state.


“The monument is such a blatant violation of the First Amendment,” Anne Nicol
Gaylor, founder and president of the group, said. “It was offered to the city as a shrine and
the city's letter of acceptance noted it was accepting the monument as a
religious shrine.”


National groups that argue the First Amendment does not bar all government
displays of religious symbols, such as the American Center for Law and Justice
and the Rutherford Institute, have contacted the city officials to offer legal
representation if the city decides to fight for the Jesus statue.


According to Gaylor, city officials have said they will fight. Moreover, they
recently placed a sign at the park stating that the statue is not meant to
endorse Christianity.


“I don't think a disclaimer does the trick,” Gaylor said. “If you put a sign
in front of an apple saying it is not an apple, that does not change the reality
of the situation. City officials are thumbing their noses at the federal and
state constitutions, which say there should be no government endorsement of
religion.”


Gaylor said her group filed the lawsuit on behalf of residents who for years
have complained about the statue.


In Republic, Mo., city officials were warned Tuesday by the American Civil
Liberties Union of Kansas and Western Missouri that if they do not remove a
Christian symbol from the city's logo, a lawsuit will be filed. The city's logo
contains an ichthus, a fish symbol created by early Christians who lived under
the Roman Empire.


Republic's Board of Aldermen voted to charge a citizen group — the Support
Republic Committee — with the task of raising $100,000 to defend the logo
against an ACLU lawsuit. The board and the mayor will meet Monday to learn
whether the group raised the funds to legally defend the seal.


Gay Revi, member of the board of directors for the Ozarks chapter of the
ACLU, said the group had not raised much money and that according to press
reports the board and mayor do not want to spend tax dollars to defend the
logo.


The city's weekly newspaper, the Republic Monitor, reported today that
the citizen group still has $96,500 to raise before Monday's meeting. According
to the report, city officials are calling on residents to donate money to the
group.


“In our opinion and that of our legal panel, the symbol violates the First
Amendment's mandate that government remain neutral in matters of religion,” Revi said. “The symbol is one of
Christianity. Government cannot favor religious people over nonreligious.”


Revi added that the ACLU's lawsuit would be filed promptly if city officials
decide not to remove the symbol.


Republic Mayor Doug Boatwright defends the logo as a universal symbol of
religion and representative of the community's moral values.


“You can't deny that religious values are important here,” Boatwright told
The Kansas City Star. “If you ignore that, I think that would be doing a
disservice to the community.”


A volunteer attorney for the ACLU noted in a letter to the mayor that the
ichthus represents only one religion.


“The fish symbol, also known as the ichthus, first appeared in the second
century and was used as a secret sign of Christianity,” wrote Doug Bonney.
“Popular culture usage also confirms that the fish symbol used in the City seal
is a Christian icon and not a 'universal symbol of religion.' For instance, the
fish symbol is often used in advertisements to denote a Christian-owned
business, and plastic fish symbols are commonly displayed on motor vehicles
owned by Christians.”