EVANSVILLE, Ind. - An Evansville church’s request to place 30 Christian crosses along the riverfront Aug. 4-18 has brought a legal challenge and a show of show of support from some other organizations who intend to co-sponsor the display.
The request by West Side Christian Church to have crosses along Riverside Drive was approved June 20 in 2-0 decision by the Evansville Board of Public Works. The American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana is seeking an injunction to stop the display on behalf of local opponents.
City government officials have not commented since the litigation was filed, but after the works board’s decision, City Attorney Ted Ziemer Jr. said Evansville Municipal Code gives that board authority to approve or reject displays on public rights of way and determine what is appropriate and what is not.
"No person shall cause the obstruction or partial obstruction of a public way without the permission of or without a permit issued by the Board of Public Works," reads one section of the city code.
Another section of city code allows the placement of "First Amendment signs" in a right of way, provided they don't cause sight distance problems for motorists. The code defines First Amendment signs as "any sign promoting any cause, party, candidate or idea or concept; except it does not include signs advertising any business or sale of product or service by a business."
The request for an injunction, filed in U.S. District Court in Evansville, says the crosses violate the First Amendment and amount 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."
West Side Christian Church elder Roger Lehman, a former city-county building commissioner, applied to the city to have the cross display. The polyethylene crosses are to be about 6 feet tall and decorated by children.
Lehman said his former employment in local government had nothing to do with his role as the applicant.
"I took it on because of my feeling of duty to God and church, doing what we're called to do," he said.
Some other churches and organizations have joined West Side Christian Church in what Lehman described as "a Tri-State ecumenical effort." They include The Cathedral, North Park Wesleyan Church, Maranantha Baptist Church, Westwood Church, Church of the Cross, Dove Chapel, Northwoods Church, Good Shepherd Assembly of God, Good Shepherd Catholic Church, The Connection Church, Old Union Christian Church, Point Township Church of Nazarene, The Dream Center, Thy Word Network and God's Way Church.
The city, Lehman said, has approved a request by West Side Christian Church to put a plaque on each cross indicating its sponsor. The plaques are to be 3 inches by 18 inches.
The Cross the River initiative also has evolved into a fundraising endeavor, Lehman said. "We determined at our last meeting we are going to support two local charities with the program. One is the Evansville Rescue Mission's Camp Reveal. We're also going to participate with a group called CARE (Child Care Assistance Resources of Evansville), which is part of the Homelessness Coalition, designed to provide day care for families on the brink of being homeless."
Lehman said the same fund also will be used to cover legal expenses associated with the court challenge.
A few Evansville business have responded to the lawsuit by posting messages on their marquees inviting West Side Christian Church to put the crosses on their properties.
"I would say we are very thankful and blessed by those businesses willing to do that," Lehman said. "As far as the (riverfront) project goes, we have not decided to not do the project. The courts may determine that for us, but our hope is the project would go forward. We have talked about, after the project is done, seeing if those business are interested in doing that as follow-up, because like I said, we are very appreciative.
"The intent is to have a public display of art that is good art, good for our community and sends a good message. Obviously everybody (in the community) is not in agreement on that, but we feel like in a public forum, this is where you should be able to express that."
Gavin Rose, the ACLU of Indiana’s staff attorney, had a differing viewpoint.
"The First Amendment prohibits the government from endorsing a particular religious faith, or religion at all," Rose said. "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."