Photo: Steven McKeown, Bald Knob Cross of Peace
A legal battle is raging on in southern Illinois over a 111-foot cross and whether or not it should be repaired with state tax dollars.
Built in 1953, the Bald Knob Cross has towered over Illinois' Alto Pass ever since, at one point standing tall as the Western Hemisphere's largest Christian monument. Decades later, the famous cross fell into disrepair, and a non-profit group called Friends of the Cross began raising funds for restoring it in 2009. They applied for state support of the project, and Illinois helped repair the structure given its tourism value.
It was a decision that still bothers Rob Sherman, an atheist and founder of Rob Sherman Advocacy. Launching a federal lawsuit against Friends of the Cross in 2010, he said his mission ever since has been returning Illinois' $20,000 grant to taxpayers. Though his claim was rejected last February, he'll have another chance to plead his case Wednesday before Chicago's 7th Circuit Court of Appeals.
"My lawsuit is not an attack on a cross or on Christianity," he said. "It is an attack on a clearly unconstitutional law that forces atheists to pay to advance religion."
Sherman said he was inspired to challenge the funding as Illinois' state Constitution forbids close relationships between the state and government in promoting religion. By forcing non-Christians to pay for an overtly Christian symbol, he said, the Illinois General Assembly violated its own laws by granting Friends of the Cross funding.
"Funding should only come from voluntary private sources," Sherman said. "Over the past 30 years, I've done everything that I can think of to persuade people that they're throwing their money away on religion because God is make-believe. If, after all that effort, people still want to spend their money that way, they have a right to. They just don’t have a right to force me – through unconstitutional legislation – to do so too."
Calls and e-mails to Friends of the Cross were not returned by press time. D.W. Presley, president of Bald Knob Cross of Peace, another group restoring the cross, said Sherman's lawsuit ignored the statue's status as a beloved local landmark. Halting efforts to preserve it, he said, could reduce its popularity as a travel destination.
"The cross has become a staple of the community," said Presley, whose grandfather Wayman helped conceive the cross' creation. "It attracts a lot of people from all over Illinois, the rest of the country and even other nations. The majority of funding for its restoration over the last few years has come from people from all walks of life making donations."
Presley said over $500,000 had been raised for repairs to the cross by various organizations. Ken Kramer, a deacon at Arlington Heights, Illinois’ Church of Christian Liberty, said its tourism value didn't justify any taxes used to pay for it. Even as a Christian, he said the separation of church and state should remain distinct.
"Government should support Christianity in their hearts rather than with our tax dollars," Kramer said. "If it supports one religion or denomination, it's obligated to support them all. It's a slippery slope."
More importantly, he added, the controversy surrounding the cross' funding detracted from its message of faith and redemption. Rather than count every dollar, he said Christians should focus on the monument's relationship to Christ.
"The cross means the same to me no matter where it is," he said. "God's son willingly gave his life for us. If government is restrained to where it should be, issues like local tourism and business solve themselves. That function gets handled by private interests where it belongs."