There is no middle ground. Some Texas Christians who are protecting a large cross in the Port Neches RiverFront Park say there is no possibility of compromise, even though a group of atheists and agnostics offered what the non-believers called an “amicable solution.”
They even put it in writing, and left the letter at the base of the cross, along with a plate of cookies.
The Christians tore the letter to pieces during a prayer vigil. Nobody is talking about what happened to the cookies.
The mayor of Neches, Texas, is on their side.
The letter offering a compromise came from the Freedom From Religion Foundation. It is an organization on a mission defined by its name.
As it does whenever it finds a religious display on public land or government property, the FFRF first submitted a letter calling for the cross to be pulled down, before the nicer letter that accompanied the cookies.
The FFRF has a point. It is true this cross in question is on public property and has been since at least 1970. That’s the best guess of city officials.
However, as you might expect, the FFRF couldn’t care less about the cross’ history. As far as the Foundation is concerned, all that matters is its significance and its location.
“The Latin cross is the principal symbol of Christianity around the world, and display of the cross alone could not reasonably be taken to have any secular point,” FFRF attorney Rebecca Markert wrote in her official letter to Port Neches officials.
“The religious significance of the Latin cross is unambiguous and indisputable,” she added.
That means, as Markert also explained, the cross is in violation of the First Amendment’s separation of church and state. As far as the FFRF is concerned, that is all that needs to be said.
However, Christians who have vowed to protect the cross, and held a prayer vigil in mid-November at its site, are not about to abide by Markert’s legal opinion. It really doesn’t matter to them what she thinks.
“We stand united to fight for what our beliefs are,” prayer vigil organizer Sheila Ackley explained. “They’re our beliefs, they are our constitutional right to do so. If we don’t stand for it, it’s no more.”
Ackley’s group need look no further than the Port Neches City Hall for support. Mayor Glenn Johnson told KDFM-TV the cross won’t be going anywhere, as long as he is running things, until the city’s legal team reviews the case.
And even then, don’t look for city crews to pull it down.
“I want to make it perfectly clear to the citizens of Port Neches specifically that this mayor and this city council will not fold, will not bend, will not roll over,” Johnson said.
“We’re going to fight this all the way. And if it goes to court then it goes to court. And we’ll fight it there as well.”
Freedom From Religion Foundation Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor said Mayor Johnson’s statement is close to unconscionable.
“A city government should not send a message that makes ‘outsiders’ of non-Christians and nonbelievers and ‘insiders’ of believers,” she said.
Johnson’s attitude is not typical. Usually municipal and school officials crumble pretty quickly when they open a letter of protest from the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
This month alone, the FFRF pointed to victories such as in Portland, Ore., where the city’s public school board upheld a ban on student religious holiday performances in response to a pre-emptive complaint from the Foundation.
The Wadena, Minn., municipal nativity scene won’t be unpacked and set up this year thanks to a FFRF protest.
A Tennessee school board decided they should remove a Christian flag from their meetings after a complaint from the Foundation, and Colorado Mesa University knuckled under to an FFRF complaint about Bibles being distributed at a graduation ceremony.
None of those institutions went to court to fight the FFRF, as Johnson said he is ready to do. They just gave in.
And remember, those FFRF victories were just from the month of November.
It was only a month before the Freedom From Religion Foundation left its offer and a plate of cookies at the base of the cross in Port Neches that the group scored a victory in another Texas town.
A Texas school district decided in October it would no longer allow a high school principal to preach to students at a student-led prayer event or set up a religious after-school club after the Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter to the district informing it of what the FFRF considered to be unconstitutional activities.
Responding to the FFRF complaint, a lawyer for the Prosper Independent School District stated that the high school principal, Greg Wright, would no longer speak “in his capacity as District employee at future on-campus, student-led See You at the Pole events.”
Also, according to school district attorney Charles Crawford, “Principal Wright is not forming a religious club for students, the First Priority Club. Rather, this club is being student formed and led.”
Ackley told KBTV she appreciated Port Neches Mayor Johnson’s support. She, too, sees this as a battle worth waging.
“It won’t be long and they’re going to take our churches away,” Ackley said. “It’s not going to be long and they’re not going to allow us to have our Bibles. And I was placed on this Earth by God to fight for Him, and over my dead body.”