NEOSHO, Mo. — A prominent professing atheist organization has expressed its skepticism after a Missouri city recently transferred a section of land surrounding an 80-year-old cross display to a private foundation in an effort to assuage the organization’s concerns about government endorsement of Christianity.
“If the intent is to save the religious display, the purpose of the transfer is religious and could be considered a legally problematic sham remedy,” wrote the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) to the City of Neosho on Friday.
As previously reported, FFRF first sent a letter in May to Mayor Ben Baker, stating that it had been informed by a complainant that a cross figure lies on the side of a hill in Big Spring Park, which is public property. It asserted that the figure violates the U.S. Constitution because its public location sends the message that the government endorses Christianity.
“The government’s permanent display of a Latin cross on public land is unconstitutional,” the correspondence asserted. “The display of this patently religious symbol on public property confers government endorsement of Christianity, a blatant violation of the Establishment Clause.”
It requested that the cross be removed from the park or moved to private property.
However, once residents of Neosho heard about FFRF’s effort, many urged officials not to cave to the Church-State separation group. The cross has been in place since 1930 without complaint.
“In fact, all day today I got texts and messages and e-mails and calls saying, ‘Stand strong. Keep the cross,’ and so that’s what we’re going to do,” Baker told Action 12 News.
City council members agreed that steps should be taken to preserve the cross at the park.
“It is the position of the city council that the correspondence forwarded by this organization was deficient in identifying authoritative case law within the Eighth Circuit, and is further of the opinion that, in fact, controlling case law would support the continued presence of the cross within the park,” the council said in a statement.
“Therefore, it is the unanimous opinion of the city council that the City of Neosho will not remove the cross or take any other actions which in any way compromises the long standing history of our city,” it declared.
On Wednesday, Steven Hays, an attorney for the City of Neosho, wrote a letter to FFRF to advise that officials had transferred the land surrounding the cross figure to a private organization in order to avoid a lengthy and expensive court battle.
“Effective this date, the City of Neosho has transferred the ownership of the land at issue and contains the cross which had been the motivating factor of your foundation contacting the City of Neosho,” he wrote.
“Following the findings of Salazar v. Buono, the City of Neosho has transferred the subject property to the Save Our Heritage Foundation, a private foundation, utilizing a fee simple conveyance with a conservation easement as prescribed by the laws of the state of Missouri,” Hays explained. “It is the position of the City of Neosho that the actions it has taken brings this matter to a close.”
However, upon receipt of the letter, FFRF sent a reply asserting that the city can’t simply sell the land to “a buyer intent on ‘saving’ the religious display.” The Save Our Heritage Foundation was created in July, and Neosho Councilman Richard Davidson is listed as one of the agents of the group.
According to the Joplin Globe, the foundation was formed “to acquire from governmental bodies and private entities interest in real property for the purposes of retaining and preserving the historical, architectural, archaeological or cultural aspects of the property including, but not limited to, monuments, markers and other structures of historic significance.”
FFRF also contended that there must be fencing around the cross, along with a disclaimer sign so that the appearance of a government endorsement of Christianity will be rectified.
“Indeed, without the fences and disclaimers, the transfer ‘does not relieve the continued perception of government endorsement,'” wrote attorney Rebekah Markert.
FFRF further noted that the land must be sold at fair market price and “not selling below fair market value to a religious organization.”
The organization has now requested copies of all correspondence between the City and the Save Our Heritage Foundation, as well as copies of any applicable laws pertaining to the sale of real estate, as it wishes to investigate the matter.
A public meeting is scheduled for Monday night at the Lampo Community Center regarding the transfer of the parcel of land immediately surrounding the cross.
Editor’s Note: The original version of this article said that Neosho officials sold the land surrounding the cross as FFRF had referred to the matter as a “sale” and “purchase” in its correspondence to the City, and expressed concern about “fair market value.” The City has now noted to Christian News Network that the land was simply transferred, with no sale involved.