A church's sign welcoming passersby to Hawkins, Texas, is no longer on display following a lengthy legal battle with the nation's largest atheist group.
The sign, which said: "Jesus Welcomes You to Hawkins" was taken down on June 28.
In 2015, the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation claimed in a letter to city officials that the sign delivered a message that it "prefers Christianity over other religions." The FFRF called for the sign's removal and in the four years that followed the city of Hawkins and the church, on whose property the sign was located, were locked in a legal battle.
Hawkins has a population of just over 1,300 residents, Fox News reported. "The sign ... was put up in 2015 in front of a Hawkins coffeehouse, on property owned by Jesus Christ Open Altar Church. Until it was taken down, members of the flock stood watch over the "Jesus" banner."
After waking up to find out the sign was removed, church trustee Mark McDonald told a Texas newspaper that it was police who notified them of the sign's removal.
“The city employees destroyed our church property, pulled up our crosses and destroyed everything,” McDonald told the Longview News-Journal on Friday.
“We’re treating it like a hate crime of religious discrimination that was conspired by the city. We have enough documents to prove that,” McDonald added. “The city was warned (Thursday) by our attorneys not to touch it and not to bother it. There’s been closed meetings, closed records (and) a lot of things wrong.”
Church officials argued that the property was acquired from two funeral homes and the sign was on their property. However, city officials said the funeral home was not legally supposed to sell the properties which makes the city the rightful owner.
After a four-year legal battle, the city reportedly took down the sign with no warning or resolution to build a municipal street in its place, according to Hawkins City Secretary Dona Jordan.
Now that the sign is down the church's legal counsel said it will continue to challenge the city’s decision to take down the “Jesus” sign.
The FFRF’s 2015 letter of complaint started the battle to remove the sign and Mike Berry, chief of staff at the First Liberty Institute, said it’s the atheist group's typical bullying tactic.
“FFRF has made its living roaming around the country trying to bully government officials into purging religious symbols from the public square — exactly what the U.S. Supreme Court said should not be done,” Berry told Fox News after the sign was taken down.
“Just two weeks ago in The American Legion v. American Humanist Association, the court ruled that religious displays, even on public property, are presumptively constitutional. The church certainly can make a case if the city’s decision to take this sign down is out of religious hostility or a false belief that religious displays are not allowed,” he added.
The city of Hawkins was seemingly divided on the sign. As previously reported by The Christian Post, Mayor Will Rogers of Hawkins thought the town would win.
"That's not a church, we're not welcoming you to a particular church," declared Rogers. "That sign says, 'Jesus Welcomes You.' To me and many others, Jesus is not a religion. Jesus is in every religion across the globe. He's in Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism. He represents love and kindness."
A few months after the mayor's comments, nevertheless, the City Council voted to remove the sign after a survey of the land where the sign was located confirmed that it was on public property, according to CBS 19.
"City Council member Sherry Davis said it was [a] tough decision, but it had to be done to avoid a lawsuit against the city."