PORT NECHES, Texas — Officials in a Texas city have sold a plot of land surrounding a controversial cross to a local church to avoid a lawsuit from a professing atheist organization.
As previously reported, the cross at issue, a 10-foot cement monument, sits in Riverfront Park in Port Neches, and has done so for over 45 years. But the Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) took issue with the monument after it received a complaint from a “concerned citizen” about the presence of the cross.
“The government’s permanent display of a Latin cross on public land is unconstitutional,” its letter to Mayor Glenn Johnson last November stated. “The display of this patently religious symbol on public property confers government endorsement of Christianity, a blatant violation of the Establishment Clause.”
The organization then demanded the removal of the cross.
“We ask you to remove the cross from Port Neches Riverfront Park immediately or direct the display [to] be moved to a more appropriate private location,” it said.
Area residents rallied in support of keeping the cross, with hundreds placing white crosses in their own yards. Johnson vowed not to capitulate to the atheist demands.
“I want to make it perfectly clear to the citizens of Port Neches specifically that this mayor and this city council will not fold, it will not bend, it will not roll over,” he told reporters. “We’re going to fight this all the way. And if it goes to court, then it goes to court. And we’ll fight it there as well.”
But according to reports, the city has been considering its options, and decided to sell the plot of land surrounding the cross to a local church, which would then make the area owned by a private entity. Both the cross and a 20 x 20 space surrounding the monument were purchased by First United Methodist Church of Port Neches.
“We found a section in the local government code that allows the sale of property to a religious organization, as long as that organization owns land within the municipality and there’s an agreement to revitalize that land,” Port Neches City Attorney Lance Bradley told 12News Now.
“I don’t think we’d categorize it in any particular manner,” City Manager Andre Wimer also stated. “We looked at a number of options and this is the direction that city council decided to proceed.”
FFRF considers the sale a “victory,” but said that it is investigating the sale further as it is skeptical about the plot of land selling for only $100.
“The action to remove the Christian symbol from the public park is certainly a step in the right direction,” attorney Rebecca Markert told local television station KDFM. “FFRF will be looking into the details of the land sale to ensure the law was followed. If it is determined that the sale did not go through the proper process and the purpose was to save a religious symbol, then it’s not a closed case.”
Area residents state that they are glad that the cross will remain in Riverfront Park.