A towering cross that has stood in a Pensacola, Fla. public park since the days of World War II will stay put, surviving an attack by atheist groups who felt its message of love and forgiveness should not be associated with the U.S. government.
In a ruling that disappointed these groups, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals on Feb. 18 declared the cross to be constitutional.
The decision comes after a long legal journey that included a visit to the Supreme Court, according to the Washington Times.
In 2015 the American Humanist Association’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center and the Freedom From Religion Foundation sent separate letters to city officials saying the Cross had to be removed, based on their finding that its intent was purely religious.
“By prominently displaying a Christian cross at Bayview, a public park, the city is promoting Christianity over all other religions and religion over non-religion,” said Monica Miller, an attorney with the Appignani Humanist Legal Center.
Pensacola city officials never responded, so in May of 2016 the groups filed a joint lawsuit saying the Bayview Cross “sends a clear and exclusionary message of government preference for Christianity over all other religions.” In June 2017, a U.S. District Court judge agreed and said the cross had to come down within 30 days.
City officials appealed the decision. More than a dozen attorneys general from across the country agreed, saying the cross should be considered a secular monument.
Saying that crosses are put up to honor heroes and create memorials when people die, the attorneys generals’ argument was that it’s not always about promoting Christianity. They added that the cross has been up for 75 years without a challenge and thus reflects “cultural heritage” rather than religion.
It didn’t work. In September of 2017 the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals reluctantly but unanimously affirmed the earlier decision, saying they were “bound by existing Circuit precedent” and “constrained to affirm.”
The decision left the door open for the Supreme Court to deem the cross OK, which they did last June. Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the majority, said a different giant cross, this one in Maryland, was legal precisely because of its historical nature. Even if it was once purely Christian, the passage of time had made it “indisputably secular.”
The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals went along with that decision.
The American Humanist Association called this a “devastating blow to the Establishment Clause.”