A federal judge has ruled that a Christian cross must be taken down from a public park in Pensacola, Florida. The religious iconography had stood in the park for decades before four individuals challenged that its presence violated the First Amendment.
On June 19, U.S. District Court Judge Roger Vinson ruled that a 34-foot cross affixed in Pensacola's Bayview Park was unconstitutional under the Establishment Clause, and ordered that it be taken down within 30 days.
A wooden cross was erected in Bayview Park in 1941. The fixture was updated into a towering concrete cross in 1969 by the civics group Pensacola Jaycees. In 2016, four residents in the surrounding Escambia County mounted a lawsuit asserting that the cross violated the separation of church and state under the First Amendment.
The four plaintiffs were married couple Amanda and Andreiy Kondrat'yev, and Andre Ryland and David Suhor. They were represented by the secular groups American Humanist Association and the Freedom from Religion Foundation, while the city of Pensacola was represented by attorney Nixon Daniel of the firm Beggs & Lane.
The case over whether the cross met a precedent set by the Supreme Court's 1971 ruling on Lemon v. Kurtzman, which established that religious displays must not promote or involve government with religion and must also have a secular purpose. Daniel argued that the Bayview Park fixture held more cultural importance than religious value.
"No one has ever seriously argued that this is an establishment of religion by the city of Pensacola," Daniel told WEAR. "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."
Vinson, in his written ruling, indicated that he was highly sympathetic to Daniel's reasoning, according to AL.com.
"Even though the cross costs very little to maintain, has hosted tens of thousands of people, and has stood on public property in one form or another for approximately 75 years (apparently without incident), four people... contend they are 'offended' by it and want it removed."
Vinson also criticized three of the plaintiffs, noting that the Kondrat'yevs had moved to Canada since filing the lawsuit and that Suhor had attempted to use the fixture to perform a satanic ritual. The federal judge also blasted the Establishment Clause as "historically unmoored, confusing, inconsistent, and almost universally criticized by both scholars and judges alike."
Despite expressing disgust with the lawsuit, Vinson concluded that the Establishment Clause was "is still the law of the land and I am not free to ignore it."
Vinson, in addition to ruling that the cross must be removed, ordered that Pensacola pay a comical amount of $1 in damages to each of the plaintiffs.
Senior counsel Monica Miller of AHA's Appignani Humanist Legal Center praised the ruling as a victory for the First Amendment.
"The cross was totally unavoidable to park patrons, and to have citizens foot the bill for such a religious symbol is both unfair and unconstitutional," Miller said in a statement.
Republican Mayor Ashton Hayward of Pensacola had not yet committed to honoring Vinson's ruling, according to city spokesman Vernon Stewart.
"We are currently in the process of reviewing this with our legal counsel," Stewart told the Pensacola News Journal. "However, Mayor Hayward is traveling, and he will be the one to ultimately decide how to proceed."