Camp Controversy: Arizona Town Debates Display Of Cross

Here at Americans United, we always know that the fight to preserve church-state separation is never easy.

That's why we aren't surprised by what's going on in Camp Verde, Ariz., where many citizens are making quite a stir because a cross was removed from a government building.

For four years, the Christian symbol hung in the town's community center. Earlier this month, a resident complained, and Americans United sent a letter to the Parks and Recreation Department requesting that the cross be taken down. The Constitution, our lawyers explained, prohibits the government from favoring one religion over others (or religion over non-religion).

Town Manager Mike Scannell agreed with AU's legal analysis and requested that the owners of the cross, a local religious group called Bread of Life, remove the symbol. Bread of Life could use the symbol during its own events at the facility but would have to remove it once those events were over.

Since hearing this decision, some Camp Verde citizens have turned this into what a local newspaper calls "politically religious hay out of what should have been a non-issue."

That's because, as always, some people think following the Constitution is up for debate.

"[Scannell] just sees this as a legal issue," said Council Member Norma Garrison. "I think my rights are being stepped on."

Garrison said Scannell didn't have the authority to have the cross removed, and now, the council will take up the issue later this week.

In preparation for its deliberation, the council asked attorney Bill Sims to give them his take on the situation at last Wednesday's meeting. Luckily, Sims provided them with an important history lesson.

"We are here tonight because of our founding fathers," Sims said. "As the drafters of the Constitution, they were fearful of persecution from both the church and the king."

Sims explained that the courts have sought to find a balance that protects the minority of non-Christian citizens, while permitting the free exercise of religion and maintaining government neutrality.

That's why, when it comes to this cross in question, "The courts have said you must cover it or remove it," he concluded.

It's not what the nearly 70 residents who showed up at the meeting wanted to hear but, maybe, they will realize one day why government neutrality is so important in preserving religious liberty for all.

As the Camp Verde Bugle wrote in an editorial:

"Instead of being a moment for vitriolic attacks against the woman who complained about the cross or the town manager who had it removed, this should be a time to celebrate the U.S. Constitution.

"The majority of Camp Verde residents are Christians. That fact does not give the Town authority to approve Christian symbols on its walls; it gives the Town the responsibility of guarding the rights of those who have different beliefs. Those who absolutely refuse to see the point of view of others are doing no favors to their own religion."

We look forward to the council's decision and hope it's the right one.