EFFINGHAM, Ill. — The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) has requested that a city in Illinois remove a cross from a mural painted on a tunnel on city-owned property. A “Let the Cross Stay” petition has consequently been launched in an effort to urge city council members to uphold the mural — a petition that has over 30K signatures as of press time.
“We are writing to request that the Latin cross be removed from the mural,” the FFRF letter states. “It is inappropriate and unconstitutional for a government owned mural to prominently feature a religious display, such as a Latin cross. It is especially inappropriate where the display is placed in a location where it will predominantly be viewed by public school children and staff moving from one part of their campus to another.”
According to the Effingham Daily News, the mural — in between Effingham High School and its sports complex — was painted by Jamie Stang-Ellis of Stang Arts and features an American flag blowing the wind, a football field, and a white cross surrounded by a burst of light.
The cross is actually a depiction of a monument erected at interstates 70 and 57, known to local residents as the “Cross at the Crossroads.” The monument was established by a private organization just days after the 9/11 attack in 2001 and has since become a “symbol of the city.”
On Dec. 18., FFRF wrote to Mayor Mike Schutzbach to advise that a local resident had alerted them to the inclusion of the cross in the painting, and to request that the Christian symbol be removed from the artwork. It asserted that the cross, being on government property, violates the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution and makes non-Christians feel like “political outsiders.”
“A mural that depicts nothing except a Latin cross alongside the American flag sends a clear message: that patriotism and religiosity are interrelated,” the letter states. “It conveys the message to the 30% of Americans who are not Christians, including the 24% of Americans who are not religious, that they are not ‘favored members of the political community.'”
“To avoid constitutional concerns and divisiveness among the Effingham community, we request that the portion of the mural depicting Christian iconography be removed,” it asks.
City Administrator Steve Miller told the Effingham Daily News earlier this month that the matter is being reviewed internally and that he will be consulting with city council.
In the meantime, a petition has been launched to the Effingham City Council asking that the cross not be erased from the mural.
“As a member of the Effingham community, I am proud of our heritage. The cross has been a symbol for Effingham as long as I can remember,” wrote author Jarrett Jones. “Unfortunately, there are those few who hate our city and would like to see the cross taken down from the city-owned tunnel. Next, they will try to take the giant cross that stands over our great city. We can’t let that happen …”
A rally was also hosted outside city hall on Jan. 4 entitled “Standing Up for Jesus,” and the Texas-based First Liberty Institute wrote to Mayor Schutzbach and city council to contend that the mural is “well within constitutional parameters.”
“The Cross at the Crossroads’ two decades of prominence as part of Effingham surely has established it as just such a symbol and ‘part of the community.’ It is a recognized symbol in and of the city and an unmistakeable community hallmark,” the letter outlines. “Formally dedicated days after the attacks of September 11, the cross depicts Effingham’s tradition of patriotism and unity. There is little wonder it was included in a mural on city property.”
“Inclusion of the Cross on the Raney Street mural is a far simpler question than a multi-ton Ten Commandments monument on a state capitol grounds, sectarian religious prayer at the start of city council meetings, and an enormous government-owned cross in a public median, all of which were upheld by the Supreme Court,” it states. “Under the court’s prevailing standard for religious displays, the mural appears well within the requirements of the Establishment Clause.”
First Liberty asked the City to ignore FFRF’s complaint as removal of the cross would rather signify that Effingham is “aggressively hostile” toward symbols of religion.
According to local television station WTYE, county board Chairman Jim Niemann supports keeping the mural as is.