EFFINGHAM, Ill. — A depiction of the “Cross at the Crossroads” that was included in a mural on a headwall on city-owned property in Effingham, Illinois has now been painted over. The erasure comes months after receipt of a letter from the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), which claimed that the inclusion was unconstitutional.
“While each City official might find the mural to be an attractive and accurate representation of the city, the council wants to emphasize that the City of Effingham is an inclusive and welcoming City where broad and diverse viewpoints are accepted and respected,” the City said in a statement.
“The last thing the city council wants is for any members of our community to feel excluded or treated as second-class citizens because they hold a minority belief. It is in service to these principles that the City Council has altered the mural accordingly.”
As previously reported, in December, FFRF wrote to Mayor Mike Schutzbach to advise that a local resident had alerted them to the inclusion of a cross in a mural painted under an overpass between Effingham High School and its sports complex and to request that the Christian symbol be removed from the artwork.
“It is inappropriate and unconstitutional for a government owned mural to prominently feature a religious display, such as a Latin cross,” the letter read. “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.”
The self-described Church-State separation group 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 stated. “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.’”
According to the Effingham Daily News, the mural, which features an American flag blowing the wind, a football field, and a white cross surrounded by a burst of light, was painted by Jamie Stang-Ellis of Stang Arts.
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.”
City Administrator Steve Miller advised the Effingham Daily News at the time that the City was reviewing the matter internally and wanted to discuss the issue with City Council.
In the meantime, thousands supported the inclusion of the cross in the mural, with over 33K signing a “Let the Cross Stay” petition on Change.org.
“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,” the petition read in part. “We can’t let that happen that is why we need to start a petition showing support for our heritage, way of life, and our city.”
Others appeared before City Council to ask that the “Cross at the Crossroads” be permitted to stay.
In January, FFRF sent a letter in response to attorney Tracy Willenborg, who advised that the City was considering its options. Willenborg also reportedly outlined that the City considered the mural to be private speech because it was painted by a private entity.
“[I]t is wholly irrelevant that a private organization placed the mural on government property; by accepting the mural, the City of Effingham has adopted any and all messages contained within the mural as its own,” it wrote.
Last month, the City had the cross painted over, while leaving the rest of the mural intact.
“We could pick a side and stand up for either position, and the other group would say we can take you to court. We could spend a lot of years in court — spend a lot of city money and still not make somebody happy,” Commissioner Merv Gillenwater told the Effingham Daily News. “We had to do what we felt was the right thing to do and not end up in court.”
FFRF applauded the removal of the depiction, remarking in a press release this week, “As the Effingham City Council tardily comprehended, a Christian symbol on public property sends a glaring message of noninclusion to all people not practicing the religion. It was distressing that this mural was primarily viewed by public school students, which had a proselytizing effect.”
Proverbs 25:26 reads, “A righteous man falling down before the wicked is as a troubled fountain and a corrupt spring.”