In the Crosshairs: Fla. City Debates Future of Sectarian Symbol In Public Park

A newspaper has defended a cross displayed in a public park in Pensacola, Fla., arguing, 'Joggers move past it. Dogs chase squirrels around it. Skateboarders lounge beside it.'

A cross displayed in a public park in Pensacola, Fla., isn’t a problem because it’s “simply there” and it’s like a tree.

I know. It doesn’t make sense. Yet those arguments were made recently by the Pensacola News-Journal after the American Humanist Association (AHA) and the Freedom From Religion Foundation filed suit to remove a Latin cross from Bayview Park. The suit, which the groups filed on behalf of four residents, argues that the display of a sectarian symbol on public land violates the First Amendment.

According to the News-Journal, the groups tried to resolve the matter outside of court. They sent letters asking city officials to remove the cross from the park last July, but it’s still there.  

“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 AHA attorney Monica Miller in a statement. “This cross sends a clear and exclusionary message of government preference for Christianity over all other religions.”

The cross, naturally, has plenty of local defenders.

Pensacola Mayor Ashton Hayward said the city would review the cross in light of the lawsuit, but added that he hoped a “compromise that respects the law and the prevailing preference of the residents” could be reached.

In statements on his official Facebook page, State Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Pensacola) condemned the “liberal lawsuit.” “America will always be a friendly place for the Cross and we won't be taking any down in Northwest Florida,” he wrote. Gaetz, it should be noted, is currently running to represent the area in the U.S. Congress.

The News-Journal’s editorial board also supported the cross in a nigh incoherent piece that attempted to argue that the cross is somehow simultaneously religious and non-sectarian.

“It’s a silent, long-present part of the landscape not unlike the many oaks and pines that stand solemnly along the Bayou Texar shoreline,” the paper asserted. “What the manufactured controversy over it demonstrates is what so-called ‘humanist’ groups often miss about the human experience – that freedom of religion does not necessitate, nor mandate, a freedom from religious imagery. It never has.”

The overwrought editorial also contains this gem: “In reality, the slender white cross is a benign structure surrounded by all the diversity and vibrant activity in Bayview Park. Kayakers float at a distance from it. Joggers move past it. Dogs chase squirrels around it. Skateboarders lounge beside it.”

(Oh, well, if squirrels are being chased that changes everything. Even first-year law students know that under long-standing court precedent, constitutional violations are negated when harried squirrels are present.)

Seriously, it’s surpassingly odd to compare a Latin cross to a tree. It’s apples and oranges, obviously: The cross is a manufactured thing, created for a purpose and to send a message. Yes, it may be made from wood, but it functions quite differently than a simple pine or oak.

The cross has been, from its genesis, a religious symbol. It represents the method of execution that the Romans, according to the New Testament, used to crucify Jesus Christ. It is therefore inextricably bound up in a core tenet of the Christian faith: That God came to the world in the form of a man and sacrificed himself for the salvation of humankind. Christians believe that Jesus, although he died on the cross, rose from the dead. Thus, the cross is a symbol of his triumph over death. Accepting this tenet is, to most Christians, a requirement for salvation. The cross therefore cannot be divorced from its religious roots.

Pensacolians should know that. They probably do, in fact. It’s worth mentioning here that the city is home to the notoriously fundamentalist Pensacola Christian College and its attached K-12 school; the college and school are major local employers.

The personal preferences of Pensacolians may matter to Haywood, Gaetz and other local politicians whose careers depend on their favor. But they ultimately do not and should not factor into the city’s interpretation of constitutional law. The Bayview cross is unquestionably a religious symbol. It does not belong on government-owned property.