Town ignores atheists' warnings, keeps Christian cross in Christmas lights display

A blue-lit cross stands erect as part of a Christmas light display at Finley River Park in Ozark, Missouri in December 2018. | (PHOTO: FACEBOOK/RAGAN THOMPSON-SARTIN)

To the delight of many Christians, a town in Christian County, Missouri, has reversed its decision to take down an illuminated cross from its Christmas display.

Many residents voiced their outrage when, under pressure from the Wisconsin-based atheist legal group the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the city of Ozark announced on Tuesday that it would no longer include the giant blue-lit steel cross in its Christmas light display at Finley River Park even though it has been included in the display for years.

The decision was made after Ozark administrator Stephen Childers received a letter on Nov. 30 from FFRF legal director Rebecca Markert arguing that the cross display violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution on the grounds that it amounts to a government endorsement of a religion.

The town issued an initial statement in response to the FFRF's complaint in which officials agreed that having the cross on public property was a violation of the First Amendment. The town also said that leaving the cross on public property would “result in a lawsuit that we will not win.”

“While we respect the interests of those who have long enjoyed the holiday display in Finley River Park, we must acknowledge the federal Constitution and its interpretation by the U.S. Supreme Court,” the statement read. “This letter has brought a concern to our attention and we cannot ignore the First Amendment which protects freedom of speech, protects freedom of the press, protects the right of the people to peaceably assemble, and prohibits the government from making laws or taking actions that may promote or prohibit one religion over another.”

But later that day, the town updated its statement and assured residents that the cross will continue to be part of the holiday display as the city looks into FFRF’s legal claims.

“We released a press release earlier with the facts as they have been presented to us thus far,” the statement reads. “As the day unfolded and citizens commented on this topic, we have determined that in the best interest of all parties we shall continue working through the legalities of the situation. Therefore, the cross in the Finley River Park will remain in place until a further due diligence can be completed regarding this matter.”

According to the Springfield News-Leader, Mayor Rick Gardner received “hundreds” of phone calls, text messages and other communications from members of the Ozark community following the town’s initial announcement. One person reportedly told Gardner that the cross “is a part of Ozark” and “this is Christian County, for Pete's sake."

Gardner took to Facebook to sound off about FFRF’s demand Tuesday.

“The controversy about the lighted Cross in the park is not over,” Gardner said. “The cross is NOT down and will be [lit] tonight. We have heard your thoughts and agree with them. We are now assessing all our options for addressing this situation. Stay tuned.”

FFRF, which advocates for a strict separation of church and state and regularly pressures local governments to halt any perceived entanglement with religion, was not at all happy with the city’s updated announcement.

Markert sent a second letter to Childers on Wednesday.

Markert cited federal court decisions in which courts have ruled against the display of religious symbols on public property, such as the 1985 Seventh Circuit ruling in ACLU v. The city of St. Charles, Illinois.

“You may claim to be ‘a Christian county’ but this is not true in any meaningful sense,” FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor wrote to the mayor. “More than 1.2 million Missourians are nonreligious. By erecting a large Christian cross, Ozark is alienating a sizable number of Missourians and Americans.”

In an interview with The Springfield News-Leader, Gardner assured that the city is “sticking by our second press release.”

“We are not thumbing our nose at them,” he said. “We're not ignoring them. We've got to look into this."

Follow Samuel Smith on Twitter: @IamSamSmith

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