Cross controversy: Judge to decide if 34-foot fixture is unconstitutional
PENSACOLA, Fla. (WEAR) —
The debate over a giant cross at a Pensacola park continued on Wednesday afternoon.
Honorable Roger Vinson, senior federal judge of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Florida, heard oral arguments in the lawsuit filed against the city.
Judge Vinson will decide if the cross at Bayview Park is unconstitutional.
Monica Miller, senior counsel for the American Humanist Association (AHA), said the cross violates the separation of church and state.
The AHA wants to see the cross removed.
The city argues the cross has been at Bayview Park for decades and it hasn't been a problem until recently.
The 34-foot Latin cross is at the center of a heated battled between the city of Pensacola and some residents.
In a complaint filed last year, four Pensacola residents argued the cross sits on city property and is maintained by the city recreational department.
The plaintiffs said it violates their First Amendment rights.
The recognized symbol of Christianity has come under fire because non-Christians feel alienated.
Attorney Nixon Daniel with Beggs & Lane is representing the city in this case.
Daniel said, "This cross has been there for plus 60 years."
Also, he said, "No one has ever seriously argued that this is an establishment of religion by the city of Pensacola. It's a cross that's become a part of what Pensacola is. It's history, but it's not an establishment of religion in my eyes."
Daniel said the cross has been used for sunrise Easter service in the past.
However, anyone is allowed to reserve the space.
One of the plaintiffs, David Suhor, has used the cross in support of his beliefs.
Suhor is most known for giving a satanic invocation at a city council meeting last year.
"It certainly can't be said, we contend, that the government is advocating a religion if Mr. Suhor, who is suing the city and who says he is not religious at all, is allowed to use it just like anybody else would be," Daniel said.
The AHA's Appignani Humanist Legal Center is representing Suhor and the other plaintiffs.
Miller presented the argument that under binding precedent cases like this one have been ruled unconstitutional.
Miller said, "The city maintains the symbol as its own and it sends a message to non-Christian that they're not welcomed in this community and that they're less favored by the government then Christian counterparts."
The court has laid out three factors from the 1971 Lemon v. Kurtzman case known as the "Lemon Test" which are considered binding elements in similar cases.
They include having a secular purpose.
In addition, the display can't endorse or advance religion and it can't excessively entangle the government with church and state.
"Of course just failing one of those prongs makes the cross unconstitutional, but this cross is particularly egregious failing all three prongs," Miller said.
Two of the plantiffs in this lawsuit, Amanda and Andreiy Kondrat'Yev, have since moved to Canada.
Millre said that shouldn't hurt their case.
No ruling was handed down on Monday.
Judge Vinson said he will make one as soon as he can.