An atheist activist in Illinois has filed a federal lawsuit to force a non-profit group into surrendering the $20,000 state grant it received to repair and restore a giant 111-foot cross.
The lawsuit, filed by 57-year-old Rob Sherman in the Federal District Court for the Central District of Illinois in Springfield, lists as the defendants the 501(c)(3) Friends of the Cross, the State of Illinois, the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity (DCEO), Gov. Pat Quinn and DCEO Director Warren Ribley.
Sherman, who runs a social advocacy organization called Rob Sherman Advocacy, says Quinn and Ribley had nothing to do with the 2008 contract between Friends of the Cross and DCEO, but were named as defendants because they were asked this year to rescind the grant but declined to do so.
"There has never been any question, outside of southern Illinois, that this State Grant is blatantly unconstitutional," stated Sherman in his announcement of the lawsuit Thursday.
"The only questions have been whether I could get the Christians to voluntarily obey the law by returning the money, or if I would have to drag the Christians into court to get them to obey the law," he added.
Back in 2008, the Friends of the Cross received a $20,000 state grant from DCEO that its current president, Jeff Lingle, said was applied for to support tourism.
Lingle told a local ABC news affiliate that the the Bald Knob Cross "is what it is" but also insisted that there's a "significant tourism aspect to it."
While Sherman agrees that the cross is a tourist attraction, the Buffalo Grove resident says the grant still violates the separation of church and state because the cross promotes Christianity.
"The job of atheists is to take clergy to court to challenge the epidemic of civil wrongs that they have perpetrated, on the sneak, against the People of Illinois, such as stealing massive quantities of taxpayer dollars to operate or maintain their houses of worship, parochial schools and religious ministries," Sherman commented Thursday. "It's a big job, but somebody's gotta (sic) do it."
Completed in 1963 after 15 years of fundraising and thousands of donations, the Bald Knob Cross stands prominently more than 1,000 feet above sea level in the Illinois Ozark Mountains of Southern Illinois and – when lit up – can reportedly be seen for 7,500 square miles.
Due to years of moisture and natural wear, panel after panel has fallen off the cross, leaving behind holes throughout the cross. With the goal to repair and restore the cross, the Friends of the Cross was formed and sought to raise $300,000 over a period of three years.
To reach its goal, the non-profit has hosted fundraisers, launched giving campaigns, and teamed up with a construction company in Carbondale, Ill., which offered to match donations from businesses of $500 or more.
The group claims to comprise over 330 households of people "who have different professions, different beliefs, and different motives for being involved."
"[W]e have one thing in common," they add. "We want to raise enough money to restore Bald Knob Cross to its beautiful majesty."
On Wednesday, one day before Sherman's lawsuit was filed, Friend of the Cross announced that it had exceeded its fundraising goal of $300,000 by over $100,000.
Next week, new exterior panels are scheduled to go up on the cross, which is located about 100 miles southeast of Springfield.
Approximately $150,000 was spent in demolition of the original panels and the repair of the superstructure itself, which was completed last fall.