A church-state battle at the mouth of the Sabine River has come to a close, with both sides claiming victory. Sort of. The trouble started a couple of weeks before Thanksgiving. Acting on an anonymous complaint from a local resident, the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation demanded that the city of Port Neches remove a 45-year-old, ten-foot cement cross from the town’s Riverside Park.
“The government’s permanent display of a Latin cross on public land is unconstitutional,” read a letter to Port Neches Mayor Glenn Johnson the group’s attorney, Rebecca Markert. “The display of this patently religious symbol on public property confers government endorsement of Christianity, a blatant violation of the Establishment Clause…We ask you to remove the cross from Port Neches Riverfront Park immediately or direct the display [to] be moved to a more appropriate private location.” Failure to do so would result in a lawsuit, the FFRF promised.
As has been the case in other such conflicts in the region, Southeast Texans fought back hard. Not even a week after Johnson received the FFRF’s letter, locals organized a prayer vigil around the cross, which has been the site of a dawn Easter service as long as it has been standing.
On the day of vigil, those gathered found a stealth peace offering left at the base of the old rugged cross: cookies, refreshments, and a letter signed by “your friendly Port Neches atheists, agnostics and other non-Christians” urging a harmonious solution to the dilemma. The letter read:
We support and respect your right to free assembly and to practice your faith as you see fit, and it is our deepest desire that you allow us the same respect and support. We genuinely hope that we can all come together as human beings to find an amicable solution that will keep this beautiful cross within our amazing community without giving the appearance of endorsing any religion or belief over any other religion or belief. If relocation can be attempted, we would be more than happy to provide volunteer services to keep this part of our local religious heritage in Port Neches so that it can be enjoyed by our Christian family.
Please help yourselves to these locally purchased refreshments, and have a great time worshipping on this beautiful Sunday!
At vigil’s end, when the non-believers went to gather their leftover snacks and Solo cups, they found their peace letter ripped to shreds. The language of the non-believers’ letter stood in stark contrast to the defenders of the cross. Said vigil organizer Sheila Ackley, back in November:
We stand united to fight for what our beliefs are. They’re our beliefs. They are our constitutional right to do so. If we don’t stand for it, it’s no more. And it won’t be long and they’re going to take our churches away. It’s not going to be long and they’re not going to allow us to have our Bibles. And I was placed on this Earth by God to fight for him, and over my dead body.
Mayor Johnson also got in on the act.
We may lose… but I’m just telling you this: When we come out of the fight, they will have two black eyes, a broken leg, and a broken arm. And we may look worse, but they’ll know they have been in a fight.
Johnson was speaking figuratively, of course, and he quickly urged that the Christians conduct themselves peacefully. “Because they’re out here watching us,” he said. “They’re out here right now. They brought us cookies. But I’m telling you, they’re out there. Maybe we’ll rub off on them!”
The controversy simmered for almost six months. Around the time of the vigil, a few members of a group that initially called itself “Little White Cross Mid-County Texas Chapter 1” on Facebook started making wooden crosses for lawn display. Their first batch of 200 or so went fast.
In December, the movement spread to adjacent Orange County, where many local Christians were seething over a nativity. For years, the city of Orange had featured a nativity on the city hall lawn, but last year the city took it down rather than allow the local non-believers to display a banner featuring alternate messages, despite the fact that the Christians had the stated support of Governor Greg Abbott, Attorney General Ken Paxton, and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick.
The Austin politicos all stressed their beliefs that such religious displays on public property were constitutionally protected, but none of them acknowledged the fact that the Orange County dissenters did not request that the nativity be removed, only that their message be allowed equal time. It would seem safe to assume that Patrick, Abbott, and Paxton either all misunderstood the facts or that their concept of “religious liberty” extends only to Christians.
In any event, that gave the Little White Cross group a big boost. From its humble beginnings in mid-Jefferson County, it has gone national, and now bills itself as Little White Crosses USA. They recently claimed to have distributed no fewer than 50,000 crosses to people in more than 30 states and two foreign countries.
The situation was resolved last week with great creativity on the part of Team Cross. It will remain where it is, only it won’t be in Riverside Park anymore. That’s because Port Neches City Council elected to carve out a plot around the cross and sell it to the town’s First United Methodist Church for $100. To flip an old adage on its head, if you can’t move Mohammad to the mountain, move the mountain to Mohammad.
In a statement, the FFRF declared a qualified victory:
FFRF calls the City Council decision to divest itself of a religious symbol a victory for the separation of state and church, but it is concerned about details of the land sale. It says that the issue needs to be investigated and monitored further. The low sale price raises concerns that the church was given preferential treatment, and a close watch needs to be kept, it says, on how the church’s plot will be differentiated from the adjacent taxpayer-funded park.
FFRF is skeptical that the city’s motives are secular, given that the community outcry against FFRF’s complaint was led by Mayor Johnson.
The statement went on to detail Mayor Johnson’s two-fisted oratory, and reiterated that “FFRF is not fully satisfied with the outcome.”
“The city council’s move does show the local government fully well realizes that you can’t have religious symbols on public land,” said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “However, the means by which the city divested itself of the cross raises concerns.”
FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert, author of last year’s letter to the mayor, called the move “a step in the right direction.”
Supporters of the cross greeted the deal with unqualified praise: “It’s a wonderful thing that the United Methodist Church has bought the rights to it and at least our cross is safe in our park where we all grew up as kids. And hopefully, our kids will be able to see it and their kids after that,” said Jerald Ellis, a volunteer cross-maker for Little White Crosses.
But now the battle enters a new phase: how to delineate the park from the newly created church ground. Markert tells the Beaumont Enterprise that a “reasonable person” should be able to see where the park ends and the church property begins and suggested that it be marked with signs as church property and fenced off. FUMC pastor Wesley Welborn says his church has no intention to do so, or to do anything at all, for that matter: “We’re not going to put a fence up, for certain,” he said. “There’s no plans up right now to put any signs up. Our plans are to leave it as-is.”
Previously, Port Neches city manager Andre Wimer had said that the church was “obligated under statute to maintain the property.” And if the church won’t do it, who will? The city? Taxpayers funding a fence for a church property? That would seem likely to attract the watchful eye of the FFRF. Unless private donors are willing to step up and pay for the fence and signs, well, something tells us this isn’t over quite yet.