(Photo: Freedom From Religion Foundation)
A small town in Alabama has decided to put up welcome signs that have Bible verses despite questions about the constitutionality of the signs brought up by a national atheist organization.
Town council members in Sylvania, Ala., voted unanimously on Tuesday to replace the four signs that former mayor Mitchell Dendy had removed two weeks ago before he resigned.
In April, Dendy received a letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Wisconsin-based atheist organization, which said the local government was using the signs to endorse Christianity and as such they were unconstitutional. The signs said "Sylvania Welcomes You" and "Ephesians 4:5 – One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism."
After receiving the letter, Dendy had the signs removed without the support of the town's council. WAAY in Dallas reports that, prior to his resignation, Dendy was also fired from his job as Dekalb County Jail administrator due to sexual harassment and misconduct allegations.
Max Turner, the current acting mayor of Sylvania, told The Christian Post on Wednesday that the town's council voted unanimously to overturn Dendy's decision so that the signs, or at least ones like them, can be restored to their proper places.
Before the council even had an opportunity to vote on the issue, however, the town's residents took it upon themselves to show how important the signs were to them. Turner says he received about 100 phone calls from upset residents, and other council members received a number of calls as well.
Many residents even put up signs of their own in their yards, Turner says, as a way of showing that they value having the Bible verse on the town's signs.
"They're just going to put them all over town, because we feel like we need to be able to worship our Lord," said Turner.
FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott explained in his letter to Dendy why he believes a Bible verse shouldn't be allowed on the signs.
"The Sylvania 'welcome' signs are not welcoming; they affiliate the government with one religion, Christianity, and exclude others. The endorsement of the tenets of one religion on government signs is unconstitutional," Elliott wrote.
He later added, "The message on the Sylvania signs is more egregious than in other cases. The signs quote a Christian bible passage which restates fundamental beliefs of many Christians. This goes well beyond the religious symbolism that courts have struck down in other cases. It is reprehensible for a Town to endorse the Christian bible and instruct travelers of its teachings."
Dendy allegedly had the signs removed because he was concerned that the town couldn't afford to defend against a lawsuit, WAAY reports.
Tom Brejcha, president and chief counsel of Thomas More Society, says the town of Sylvania has a better chance of proving the constitutionality of their signs if they can show there is a strong Christian history in the town.
"These things are defensible when put into a historical context. This is probably a town founded by Christians and it has a strong Christian heritage," Brejcha told The Christian Post on Wednesday.
The Thomas More Society is a national public interest law firm that often works with religious liberty cases. Brejcha says he is familiar with the FFRF, and he says they have a fundamental misunderstanding of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
"[They] are of the mistaken view that the First Amendment guarantees us freedom from religion, which is wrong," he asserted. "The truth is that it stands for freedom of religion, and that's a distinction that's lost on them."