LONGWOOD, Fla. – Elected officials of a Florida city say they have no intention of removing a cross memorial from their city hall after a prominent professing atheist organization took issue with the memorial, describing it as exclusionary and unconstitutional.
The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) sent a letter on March 10 to the mayor of Longwood, Florida, objecting to the display of a three-foot-tall wooden cross in the Longwood city hall. The white cross, emblazoned with the words, “We Will Never Forget Their Sacrifices,” is a memorial to veterans who lost their lives while serving in the armed forces.
“Our objection is to the message of endorsement of religion over nonreligion,” wrote FFRF staff attorney Rebecca Markert in the letter. “Additionally, this memorial sends a message that the government only cares about the deaths of Christian veterans, not other non-Christian and nonreligious veterans.”
The cross was created by a retired Army colonel and Vietnam War veteran who lives in Longwood, according to a report from the Orlando Sentinel. Initially displayed in a city park as part of a traveling Vietnam War memorial, the cross was later donated to the city and placed in the Longwood city hall.
David Williamson of the Central Florida Freethought Community first alerted FFRF of the cross memorial, describing it as “a promotion of Christianity by the city.” Arguing that the cross “universally represents the Christian religion, and only the Christian religion,” Markert claimed in the letter that the memorial is “an unconstitutional endorsement of religion.”
“The government’s display of a Latin cross on public land is unconstitutional,” Markert stated. “The inherent religious significance of the Latin cross is undeniable and is not disguisable. No secular purpose detracts from the overall message that the Latin cross stands for Christianity and that the display promotes Christianity. The display of this patently religious symbol on public property confers government endorsement of Christianity, a blatant violation of the Establishment Clause.”
Markert further alleged that the cross has “an exclusionary effect, making non-Christian and non-believing residents of Longwood political outsiders.”
“We ask you to remove the cross from the commission chambers immediately and direct the display be moved to a more appropriate private location,” she concluded.
Upon receiving the FFRF letter, Longwood Mayor Joe Durso defended the cross memorial, saying the city has “no intention” of removing it. He told the Orlando Sentinel that Longwood City Hall has displayed a Christmas tree and Jewish menorah every December for years, and no one has ever complained about them.
“[The cross] was donated to us as a nice honor in paying homage to those men and women who served,” Durso said. “How is having a cross an endorsement? … They are trying to create a fire where there is no fire.”
Longwood City Commissioner Ben Paris dismissed FFRF’s letter as “a political stunt,” pointing out that the cross is inconspicuously located at the rear of the city commission chambers.
“I’m Jewish, and I don’t find the cross offensive,” Paris told the Orlando Sentinel. “We’re not asking people to pay respect to it. … I think this is nitpicking.”
The retired Army colonel who created the cross, Johnnie Richardson, said FFRF’s demands are illogical and offensive.
“It had nothing to do with endorsing one particular religion,” he said. “Personally I’m offended—heavily offended—by those individuals that take it upon themselves to make waves about religious freedom. Why they want to make an issue out of it is beyond me.”