Officials in Dugger, Ind., have decided against heading to court to challenge a claim from the Washington, D.C.-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State that a 26-foot cross reading "Jesus Saves" situated on public land is a violation of the Constitution, as it appears to endorse Christianity. Instead, the town will sell the property.
The Dugger Town Council decided earlier this week to have the small crop of land and its cross appraised to see how much they might sell for, according to Dwight Nielsen, the town council president. Nielsen suspects the half-acre site could be worth as much as $2,000 or $3,000.
"Our legal fees would probably run that much on the first day," he told the media.
Dugger, a small town with less than 1,000 residents, is about 30 miles from Terre Haute. The piece of land with the "Jesus Saves" cross is located near a prominent roadway and just a few feet from the town's welcome sign.
Russ Pulliam, writing for World Magazine, called the town's decision wise, "compared to paying lawyers to argue over an issue that has defied the U.S. Supreme Court's attempts to resolve it since World War II."
Noting that efforts to use the Constitution's Establishment Clause as a means of banning religious expression from government-owned property "is a hopeless task," he adds: "The Supreme Court and other federal courts have contributed more confusion than wisdom on the matter, with religious expression approved in some public settings but not in others."
"Meanwhile," Pullian concludes, "thanks to the Americans United complaint, the message, 'Jesus Saves,' has gained attention well beyond the borders of a town of a few hundred inhabitants."
Americans United, apparently alerted by a local resident about the cross, sent a letter to the Dugger Town Council in July demanding that the cross be removed from public property and transferred to a private entity, as it allegedly violates the Establishment Clause's prohibition of government endorsement or support of religion.
"It's a pretty flagrant display of the government saying 'this is a Christian town,'" the nonprofit's senior council, Gregory Lipper, told Fox News. "Everyone gets freedom of religion ...just because Christianity is this country's religious majority doesn't mean that they get to put their thumb on the scale and use taxpayer dollars. It doesn't matter what religion the government is endorsing ... it's a clear violation of the Constitution."
Americans United is reportedly pleased with the proposed sale and has cautioned that it "can't be a sweetheart deal."
"If it is a legitimate, arm's-length transaction," Lipper said, "that likely would go a long way to addressing our concerns."
The cross was made two years ago by local Louie Bonham, according to the Indianapolis Star.
The 72-year-old retired welder, whose project was funded by several churches for $3,200, is not pleased with the situation and reportedly told the publication that he hopes to see those responsible for the complaint "on judgement day."
"Because they are to be judged for it," he said.
Bonham has reportedly expressed interest in purchasing the land to ensure, like others in Dugger, that the 26-foot "Jesus Saves" cross remains on the property. Several churches in town have also expressed interest in buying the land to protect the cross.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State describes its mission as "preserving the constitutional principle of church-state separation as the only way to ensure religious freedom for all." The organization is currently involved in several church-state cases across the country.