This is the Christian cross you’ll see if you visit the Port Neches RiverFront Park in Texas.
It’s by itself. There are no other religious symbols in the area. And it’s been there for nearly five decades. But as we’ve said many times before on this site, tradition doesn’t matter if something shouldn’t have happened in the first place.
Back in November, after hearing from a local resident, the Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter to the Mayor:
“The government’s permanent display of a Latin cross on public land is unconstitutional. The inherent religious significance of the Latin cross is undeniable and is not disguisable,” according to the letter signed by Rebecca S. Markert, staff attorney for FFRF. “No secular purpose, no matter how sincere, will detract from the overall message that the Latin cross stands for Christianity and that display promotes Christianity. The display of this patently religious symbol on public property confers government endorsement of Christianity, a blatant violation of the Establishment Clause.”
Posted by Kimberly Hughes on Sunday, November 15, 2015
“We got 13,000 people in the city of Port Neches. One is offended. I’m sorry. But what I’m telling you is this: I found it extremely interesting that the name of the group that sent me this letter was named ‘Freedom From Religion.’ [Crowd member yells, “Sounds like they got a religion!”] It sounds to me like not only are they attacking our Cross, but ‘freedom from religion’ tells me that they want religion out of our country…”
As it stands, the city has figured out a way around the problem.
They’re not taking down the cross.
They’re just selling off that teeny, tiny parcel of land on which the cross sits to a local church. For $100.
Thursday afternoon, the council voted to sell the 20×20 parcel of land, where the cross is located, to the First United Methodist Church of Port Neches.
Since when can a city government give a gift of public land to a church? Even beyond that cozy relationship between church and state, what happens if people touch the cross now? Will they be arrested for trespassing?
Does the city have any idea that Texas law requires cities to auction off public land if it’s for sale?
… before land owned by a political subdivision of the state may be sold or exchanged for other land, notice to the general public of the offer of the land for sale or exchange must be published in a newspaper of general circulation in either the county in which the land is located or, if there is no such newspaper, in an adjoining county. The notice must include a description of the land, including its location, and the procedure by which sealed bids to purchase the land or offers to exchange the land may be submitted. The notice must be published on two separate dates and the sale or exchange may not be made until after the 14th day after the date of the second publication.
As far as I can tell, no one else was allowed to bid on the space. Which is a damn shame since I’m pretty sure we could have raised enough money to outbid the church.
Hell, if a 20 x 20 parcel of land costs $100, I’m pretty sure I could fundraise enough money to buy the rest of that park, then put a giant wall around the cross just so no one can see it. Just to mess with Texas. Why couldn’t that happen? The government has already shown that public land is for sale.
Whom do I make the check out to?
The faster we can take care of this, the better, since the inevitable lawsuit will only delay my new purchase.
***Update***: FFRF “cautiously welcomes” the decision, but they have questions:
FFRF calls the City Council decision to divest itself of a religious symbol a victory for the separation of state and church, but it is concerned about details of the land sale. It says that the issue needs to be investigated and monitored further. The low sale price raises concerns that the church was given preferential treatment, and a close watch needs to be kept, it says, on how the church’s plot will be differentiated from the adjacent taxpayer-funded park.
So, FFRF is not fully satisfied with the outcome.
“The City Council’s move does show the local government fully well realizes that you can’t have religious symbols on public land,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “However, the means by which the city divested itself of the cross raises concerns.”
(Image via Facebook. Thanks to Richard for the link. Portions of this article were published earlier)