Several businesses in Evansville, Ind., have offered to display decorated crosses on their properties after the ACLU of Indiana filed a lawsuit against the city to keep the symbols from being displayed on public land.
Last month the Evansville Board of Public Works approved a request by West Side Christian Church (WSCC) to set up as many as 31 crosses in a downtown area called the Riverfront. The six-foot tall crosses, which are to be displayed for two weeks in August, will be sponsored and decorated by local churches and faith-based organizations of various denominations. The symbols will make up an artistic display called "Cross the River" and are part of an effort to raise funds for two local charities, according to the church's website.
After the city granted the church's request, the ACLU of Indiana filed a lawsuit on behalf of two Vanderburgh County residents that claims displaying the crosses on city property would be an unconstitutional government endorsement of Christianity. In response, several local business owners used their company signs to send a message: "Put the cross here."
Bob Rothschild, owner of Evansville Garage Doors, told The Christian Post that his company would be willing to "properly and proudly" display the crosses for the churches if the city ends up losing the lawsuit.
"I'm really not trying to prove a point to these folks that filed the lawsuit," he said. "I just think it's something that I need to do, and that's just the way I feel about it."
Jimmy Lefler, owner of Lefler Collision and Glass Repair Center, says he wasn't trying to make a political stand when he allowed the message to be posted on his company's sign. He just wanted the churches to know they have his support.
"Honestly, as a Christian, I just get really tired of political correctness," said Lefler.
Ric Conner, owner of Conner Commercial Lock and Safe, says the "put the cross here" message used by other businesses in the area originated with his company. While some people have suggested that the message is a publicity stunt, Conner says that isn't the case.
"It wasn't a religious reaction on my part or our part," said Conner. "It was a freedom of expression reaction."
Roger Lehman, an elder at WSCC and a former city-county building commissioner, told WRTV that the church appreciates those businesses that offered alternative display sites, but they aren't yet ready to give up on the Riverfront.
"I would say we are very thankful and blessed by those businesses willing to do that," said Lehman. "As far as the (Riverfront) project goes, we have not decided to not do the project. The courts may determine that for us, but our hope is the project would go forward. We have talked about, after the project is done, seeing if those business are interested in doing that as follow-up, because like I said, we are very appreciative."
The lawsuit claims the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment would be violated if the city allows the crosses to be displayed as planned.
"The display of these crosses on public property serves no secular purpose, and has the effect of advancing religion," the suit states. "A reasonable person viewing even one (1) of these crosses would conclude that the City was endorsing religion and the Christian faith."
Christopher C. Wischer, an attorney for the churches, however, says not allowing the crosses to be set up on the Riverfront would actually violate the churches' free speech rights as given by the First Amendment. The crosses are to be set up in a traditional public forum where religious speech is just as protected as non-religious speech, he says, and they are to be displayed and maintained by the churches, not the government.
"And because it's not the government itself that's doing the speaking, and because it's a temporary display and not...permanent, it wouldn't give the reasonable person the impression that it's a government endorsement of religion," said Wischer.
Although he is a real estate and local government attorney, Wischer says he has consulted with several experts on the matter and believes the law is on the city's side. Although the churches aren't currently involved in the suit, they have the option of asking the court to grant them permission to intervene in the case, which is a possibility they have discussed. The firm of Bamberger, Foreman, Oswald and Hahn, of which Wischer is a partner, has agreed to offer pro bono legal services to the churches in the case until its conclusion, and several other legal organizations have also done the same.