With the help of the American Humanist Association (AHA) and the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), four Pensacola residents are suing the city government and challenging the longstanding 25-foot cross in Bayview Park.
The four plaintiffs, including longtime cross opponent David Suhor, Andre Ryland, and Amanda and Andreiy Kondrat’yev, are asking a federal court to order the cross’s removal.
The cross — which the lawsuit describes as “towering” over the park — has stood for at least 50 years. A plaque at the base of the cross indicates that it was donated by the Junior Chamber of Commerce — now called the Jaycees — in 1949. The cross has long been the site of sunrise religious services at Easter, and the plaque also notes that the cross was dedicated in honor of a C. Frasier Phelps, listed as the chairman of an Easter Sunrise Committee in 1941.
The American Humanist Association says the city has received requests from citizens to remove the cross for at least the past 15 years. In July 2015, the FFRF and AHA warned city officials that the public display and maintenance of the cross was a form of religious endorsement by the government, but the city did not respond.
In addition to seeking the removal of the cross, the suit also asks the court to issue a permanent injunction barring the display of crosses on public property in Pensacola.
AHA, FFRF argue cross unconstitutional
“Federal courts have made abundantly clear that the government’s display of a Christian cross on public land violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment,” said Monica Miller, senior counsel with the AHA’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center. “This cross sends a clear and exclusionary message of government preference for Christianity over all other religions.”
“Pensacola’s cross is a clear violation of the separation of state and church,” said FFRF Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler. “We’re thankful to be working with courageous Pensacola residents to end the city’s unconstitutional religious favoritism.”
“A Christian cross on public land marginalizes the growing numbers of non-Christian Americans while wasting taxpayer dollars on maintaining a divisive display,” said AHA executive director Roy Speckhardt. “The government should treat all theist and nontheist groups in the community equally. Favoring one over others is clear discrimination.”
“There are tax-free churches throughout Pensacola where this pinnacle symbol of Christianity may be appropriately displayed,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president. “But when a city park serving all citizens — nonreligious, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim and Christian — contains a towering Latin cross, this sends a message of exclusion to non-Christians, and a corresponding message to Christians that they are favored citizens.”
Many want to keep cross in place
Mayor Ashton Hayward’s office said last year that it had no plans to remove the cross. Reached Wednesday afternoon, Hayward said that he hadn’t yet seen the suit, but that he would take a look at the issue.
“We respect all religions without showing preference to any,” said Hayward. “I hope there is always a place for religion in the public square. We certainly respect everyone’s opinion and they are entitled to express these opinions. Last year, citizens mobilized in a big way for the cross and it will be interesting to see how all this plays out.”
City officials also claimed in a statement last year that city residents “overwhelmingly” support leaving the cross in place. A Facebook group previously called “Keep Bayview Cross” and since renamed “Keep Religious Freedom” has garnered more than 5,000 likes. The group posted the following statement to the page on Wednesday afternoon:
Reached Wednesday, Pensacola city councilman Larry Johnson — in whose district the park and cross are located — said he thinks the cross should stay. “I just think there are so many more important issues we could be dealing with,” said Johnson.