Atheist's Years-Long Appeal Over Ill. Cross Landmark Rejected by Supreme Court

The Supreme Court ended on Tuesday a years-long legal dispute on behalf of an Illinois-based atheist who sued the state for funding the refurbishment of a large, decades-old Bald Knob Cross of Peace located in Alto Pass.

"This action by the Supreme Court affirms that our nation's court system is a joke," Chicago-area atheist Robert Sherman, who filed his initial lawsuit in 2010, said of the High Court's rejection of his final appeal.

Sherman went on to call the ruling a "fraud against the taxpayers of this country," and a "[violation of] our rights with impunity when making unconstitutional expenditures to advance religion."

The Supreme Court's "refusal to take my case means that any legislative body, whether it be Congress, a state legislature or a local unit of government, can make blatantly unconstitutional grants to advance religion simply by naming an executive branch agency as a middleman in the transaction," Sherman added on his personal website.

Sherman initially sued the state in August 2010, arguing that it had violated the First Amendment's Establishment Clause by allocating a $20,000 grant to Friends of the Cross, a fundraising group created to repair the 111-foot Bald Knob Cross of Peace at Alto Pass, which, in its 50-year lifetime, was quickly decaying.

Lower courts ruled that Sherman lacked standing to sue, as the grant money given to Friends of the Cross was not a direct allocation by Legislature, but rather a sum extracted from a $5 million "pork-barrel" fund for individual legislators and channeled to the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.

Although Sherman's case was denied in lower courts, he continued to argue that the grant allocation was a legislative earmark and showed government's preferential treatment of one religion, Christianity, above all others.

"A patronage-based process like the one apparently used in Illinois is a far cry from the type of 'specific congressional appropriations' that is analogous to the challenge," wrote a three-person panel of the Seventh Circuit United States Court of Appeals when it rejected Sherman's case back in June 2012.

As D.W. Presley, president of the cross' board of directors, told The Associated Press, he and his organization are happy to leave the three-year lawsuit in the past.

"In the grand scheme of things, while this is sensational news, this was just a small portion of what we've had going on in the last three years. The more important story is seeing the cross restored," Presley told the AP, adding that Sherman "used the legal process to the fullest extent, and there's nothing wrong with that. We're just glad it's over and behind us."

The $20,000 grant that was provided to the cross in 2008 added to the $500,000 renovation process which sought to repair the cross's decaying white porcelain tiles, which had fallen off or been vandalized in the many decades it sat at the rural Alto Pass, about 130 miles southeast of St. Louis.

As the AP points out, a Dec. 2012 lighting ceremony marked the completion of a years-long renovation project which included the replacement of 40 ground-level incandescent bulbs, a new electrical system, and new porcelain tiles for the cross.

The cross was originally erected in 1963 due to the effort of local farmers who used their pig sales to help fund the cross's creation.

The looming landmark overlooks the Shawnee National Forest and has been emphasized by politicians, such as Democratic Illinois State Sen. Gary Forby, as one of the state's major tourist destinations.