The city of Pensacola, Fla., has appealed a federal judge’s ruling that a 34-foot-tall cross in one of its public parks must be removed.
Becket Fund for Religious Liberty photo
A 34-foot-tall cross in a Pensacola, Fla., public park is the subject of the legal battle between the city and four plaintiffs who sued to have it removed.
The city, represented by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, filed a 155-page brief in the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Sept. 26 claiming those who filed suit lack legal standing to bring a complaint and that the cross does not violate the U.S. Constitution’s ban of government-established religion. Becket is a conservative, Washington-based nonprofit organization focused on defending religious liberty.
“Pensacola has a rich history, and it shouldn’t have to censor that history just because part of it is religious,” Becket deputy general counsel Luke Goodrich said in a press release. “The Constitution doesn’t treat religion like a nasty habit that must be hidden from public view; it treats it as a natural and valuable part of human culture. Pensacola can treat religion the same way.”
A cross was first erected in Pensacola’s Bayview Park in 1941, donated by the city’s Junior Chamber of Commerce in conjunction with a community Easter gathering, according to the city’s brief. The aging cross was replaced in 1969 with the cross currently in Bayview Park.
In 2016, the American Humanists Association and the Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a lawsuit on behalf of four people who objected to the cross, Pensacola’s News Journal reported.
U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson ruled in June the cross violates the Constitution’s Establishment Clause, as it has been interpreted by courts, and ordered the cross to be removed. Vinson added, however, that while he is bound by higher court precedent, he hopes the U.S Supreme Court will revisit its interpretation of the Establishment Clause, according to the News Journal.
In its appellate brief, Pensacola claimed the suit lacks legal standing because the plaintiffs have not demonstrated any injury due to the cross.
None of the four plaintiffs made “any effort to avoid the cross, and all of them encountered it for many years before filing suit, apparently without any distress,” the city’s brief stated. One plaintiff has utilized the cross for his own “satanic purposes,” according to the brief.
The cross, the city added, serves a secular purpose by preserving “the city’s history and culture.”
Still, Annie Gaylor, co-founder of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, said according to Fox News, “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.”
Ted Traylor, pastor of Pensacola’s Olive Baptist Church, told Baptist Press via email he believes the cross should “remain in the park.”
“I see the city being on firm ground legally and historically,” Traylor said. “The city seal of Pensacola has a cross on it. Barrancas National Cemetery in Pensacola contains rows of crosses. I see no reason for a symbol that has stood for 75 years to be taken down.
“However, if every cross in the land is removed, I will not rise in angry protest but proclaim the love of our risen Lord Jesus,” said Traylor, a former Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) first vice president and a former president of the SBC Pastors’ Conference.
The American Humanists Association and the Freedom From Religion Foundation have until Nov. 16 to file their brief to the appeals court, with the city’s reply due Dec. 14, the News Journal reported.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service.)