The city of Ozark, Missouri, has for 20 years celebrated the Christmas season with a lighted cross in Finley River Park, and thanks to the town’s residents, it doesn’t look like the illuminated Christian symbol is going anywhere.
All of the hubbub started after an unnamed “concerned city resident” who didn’t like the cross being in a public park contacted the Freedom From Religion Foundation — an atheist advocacy group headquartered in Wisconsin — to tell them about the display, according to the Springfield News-Leader.
The FFRF sent a letter to the city’s leaders, prompting the administration to tell residents earlier this week the cross would be taken down.
“It is the position of the City of Ozark that leaving a religious symbol on public property, in this case a cross, will result in a lawsuit that we will not win as the other communities throughout the U.S. and our own region have tried this and lost,” the statement said.
How did locals respond?
But the desires of the one “concerned city resident” didn’t mesh with most of the other residents in Ozark.
City Mayor Rick Gardner posted a Facebook message on his campaign page, revealing he’d received “hundreds” of phone calls, text messages and emails from locals upset over the town’s decision to take down the cross.
“Everybody wants it up. One lady is crying. This is part of Ozark,” Gardner wrote. “This is Christian County, for Pete’s sake.”
Because of the pushback he received from the city’s residents, the mayor said, “The cross is NOT down and will be lighted tonight. We have heard your thoughts and agree with them. We are now assessing all our options for addressing this situation. Stay tuned.”
Gardner, though, seemed a bit torn on the legality of the subject, which he described as a “complicated constitutional issue,” later noting the lighted cross “is clearly a Christian symbol.” And from a financial standpoint, he argued moving forward with the potential lawsuit could leave the city financially strapped.
“The city can’t afford to buy two new police cars the police department wants,” he explained. “So how can we afford to fight an expensive lawsuit?”
Samantha Payne, a spokesperson for the city, released an updated statement Tuesday evening. In it, she said it is “in the best interest of all parties we shall continue working through the legalities of the situation,” revealing the illuminated cross “will remain in place until a further due diligence can be completed regarding this matter.”
What did the atheist group say?
Rebecca Markert, legal director for the FFRF, told the News-Leader the Christian symbol’s presence on public property is a “constitutional violation.”
“Well, I always like to reference [former Supreme Court] Justice Sandra Day O’Connor when she wrote an opinion [on these issues],” Markert said. “She said that we do not count heads before we enforce the First Amendment, and that’s really the crux of our Constitution.”
The FFRF lawyer was referring to the 2005 case McCreary County v. American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky. Ultimately, the high court ruled it was unconstitutional for McCreary County to display the Ten Commandments at the courthouse in Whitley City.
“It doesn’t matter if 99 out of 100 people think [a cross on city land] is OK,” Markert argued. “That’s not the way our system works. … We live in a country with a lot of religious diversity because our government is largely free from religion.”
For his part, Gardner said the entire ordeal “really hacks me off.”