ACLU files suit over Evansville plan for public crosses

INDIANAPOLIS - Two Evansville residents say the city violated their First Amendment rights by voting last week to allow the West Side Christian Church to display 30 large crosses on publicly-owned riverfront property.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana filed a lawsuit Tuesday in the U.S. District Court at Evansville, seeking an injunction to block the display of the 8-foot-tall crosses that is scheduled to take place Aug. 4-18.

The lawsuit says Chris Cabral and Nancy Tarsitano, the two Evansville residents who are represented by the ACLU of Indiana, “will come into regular contact with these crosses even though they object strenuously to their display.”

They are arguing that the crosses violate the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits governments from establishing religion or prohibiting its free exercise, and say the public display amounts to the city endorsing Christianity.

“A cross, such as those that will be installed on the riverfront, is perhaps the most well-known symbol in the world of the Christian faith,” the lawsuit says.

“The display of these crosses on public property serves no secular purpose, and has the effect of advancing religion. A reasonable person viewing even one of these crosses would conclude that the city was endorsing religion and the Christian faith.”

Evansville’s Board of Public Works voted last week – with President Bill Nix and Marty Amsler in favor and the third member, Anthony Brooks, absent – to allow the church to display the polyethylene crosses. The church plans to have children attending a vacation Bible school camp decorate the crosses.

“We’re doing it on behalf of the community. We will feel like it will bring people to the riverfront who wouldn’t otherwise come,” church member Roger Lehman told the Board of Public Works at Thursday’s meeting.

The precise placement of the crosses has yet to be determined. They are to be either on the curb or against a concrete wall on the opposite side of the Pigeon Creek Greenway, but they will not block the Greenway path, Lehman said Thursday.

City attorney Ted Ziemer Jr. compared the West Side Christian Church’s request to one by the United Way, which once placed artistic statues downtown and later raffled them off. He said the crosses were “statues” that could not include any writing.

However, lawyers with the ACLU of Indiana said comparing the two is inappropriate, and that the crosses are problematic – writing or not.

“The First Amendment prohibits the government from endorsing a particular religious faith, or religion at all,” said Gavin M. Rose, the ACLU of Indiana’s staff attorney.

“While the church can certainly display emblems of its faith on its own property, the city of Evansville may not allow it to do so in the public right-of-way.”

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