EVANSVILLE, Ind. — A federal judge appointed by Ronald Reagan has placed a permanent injunction on a plan by a number of Indiana churches to display a collection of artistic crosses in the middle of their city.
As previously reported, West Side Christian Church (WSCC) in Evansville recently announced plans for the first annual “Cross the River” campaign, scheduled for August 4–18. By collaborating with several community churches, WSCC members were hoping the project would raise funds for the Evansville Rescue Missions Camp Reveal and Childcare Assistance Resources of Evansville.
“Cross the River will display 31 6’ tall crosses,” WSCC’s website explains, “each decorated differently by its sponsor, one of the various inter-denominational churches or faith-based organizations who are unified through the common symbol of the cross. Each cross will be decorated with a specific theme in mind so each cross will be different.”
The Evansville city council conducted meetings over the matter, and agreed that the display would be constitutional, since it was presented by a number of churches and not the city itself.
“[T]o display a symbol of your faith [is] … something that you have the right to do,” stated city attorney Ted Zeimer. “The city could not, on its own, put up any religious devices, but an individual has the right to freedom of express[ion].”
However, days after the board unanimously approved the display, the ACLU—a church-state separatist group—filed a lawsuit, arguing that the Cross the River project violates the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
On Wednesday, Judge Sarah Evans Barker agreed with the ACLU and issued a permanent injunction against the display. However, Barker said that it was the expanse of the project that was the issue, not the crosses in and of themselves.
“While the message intended to be conveyed by the sponsors of this display of crosses is unambiguous and unequivocal,” she explained, “the constitutional concern rests with not with the uses of the cross symbol as such, but rather with the oversized, imposing and somewhat overpowering size, scope and magnitude of the display.”
“The City’s previous approvals of other uses of the Riverfront for an overtly religious purpose, such as for sunrise services, prayer vigils, and a March for Prayer, are easily distinguishable from its approval of the proposed display of the crosses,” Barker continued. “These prior uses all involved in-person events of short duration, usually lasting only a few hours. In contrast, the display of the crosses, while not permanent, will extend over a two week period, thereby strengthening the message of endorsement by the City.”
Attorney Keith Vonderahe, who has been representing the city, told the Indy Star that he has not yet decided whether to appeal the ruling.
“It doesn’t give us guidance on the issue,” he said. “The ruling says the size and scope in this case is acceptable. What is doesn’t say is what would be acceptable.”