Major hit to state-church separation

Pensacola cross

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a ruling on Feb. 19 upholding the constitutionality of a massive Latin cross on city property in Pensacola, Fla.

Circuit Judge Kevin Newsom, writing for the unanimous three-judge panel, wrote that the 40-foot-tall Christian cross in Bayview Park “has evolved into a neutral” symbol.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, the American Humanist Association and their plaintiffs won at the district level and before the 11th Circuit. However, the case was remanded back for reconsideration following the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 2019 American Legion v. American Humanist Association cross decision. In the Bladensburg case, the Supreme Court ruled that the government-owned, government-maintained, Christian cross war memorial dominating the landscape in Bladensburg, Md., did not violate the First Amendment.

Taking its cue from the Supreme Court, the 11th Circuit ignored the religious significance of the Bayview Park cross, holding that because it’s been there a long time, and secular community events have been held in the park nearby, it is constitutional.

Newsom wrote: “American Legion itself demonstrates that an ‘undoubtedly . . . Christian symbol’ — in particular, a Latin cross — may nevertheless pose no Establishment Clause concerns.”

The Pensacola cross stands in popular Bayview Park, serving solely as the centerpiece of annual Easter Sunrise Christian worship services. It was first challenged in a 2016 lawsuit filed by FFRF and AHA.

The district court sided with the national secular organizations in a June 2017 decision. In September 2018, the 11th Circuit upheld the decision, agreeing that the government-funded, freestanding cross unconstitutionally entangled the government with the Christian faith. Both the district judge and the appeals court panel grudgingly ruled in FFRF’s favor. The city petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the ruling. The Supreme Court waited until after ruling in Bladensburg to remand it to the 11th Circuit for reconsideration in light of that ruling.

This ruling said: “Removal of the Bayview Park cross at this point . . . could well, in the Supreme Court’s words, ‘strike many as aggressively hostile to religion.’”

“It is not ‘hostile to religion’ to uphold government neutrality over religion. Bayview Park is not a Christian park, Pensacola is not a Christian city and the United States is not a Christian nation,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Tax-exempt church property abounds where this cross belongs.”