A federal judge has ruled that the city of Pensacola must remove a cross displayed in a public park, though the judge himself expresses discontent with the law he felt obliged to apply in the case.
The case concerns a 34-foot concrete cross displayed since 1969 in Pensacola’s Bayview Park. It was erected by the Pensacola Jaycees in 1969, replacing an earlier wooden version built on the site by the National Youth Administration.
A group of four people had sued the city, Mayor Ashton Hayward and Director of Parks and Recreation Brian Cooper, saying the cross violated the First Amendment and should be removed. Both sides had filed motions for summary judgment, and in a ruling filed Monday, Senior U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson ruled for the plaintiffs.
Vinson concluded that “The Bayview Cross violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, as interpreted by the Supreme Court and circuit precedent, and it must be removed within 30 days.” He ordered the city to pay damages of $1.
Vinson made clear that he issued the ruling reluctantly.
Early in his order, Vinson writes that “The Bayview Cross is part of the rich history of Pensacola and of Bayview Park in particular. Thousands upon thousands of people have attended services in the park over the years. It has also been the site of remembrance services on Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day, during which flowers were placed at the foot of the cross in honor of loved ones overseas and in memory of those who sacrificed their lives for our country … 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 — Amanda Kondrat’yev; Andreiy Kondrat’yev; David Suhor; and Andre Ryland — contend they are ‘offended’ by it and want it removed.”
In a footnote, Vinson argues that “three of the four plaintiffs arguably lack standing to continue this lawsuit,” since two of them have moved to Canada and one booked the site “for his self-described ‘satanic purposes'” on Easter Sunday, forcing a church that had planned to use it to move. However, Vinson wrote, Ryland had “undisputed” standing to pursue the case.
Vinson salted his ruling with further asides indicating that his personal views were at odds with current law on the subject. At one point he said that the founding fathers “would have most likely found this lawsuit absurd. And if I were deciding this case on a blank slate, I would agree and grant the plaintiffs no relief. But, alas, that is not what we have here.” He also described the body of law related to the Establishment Clause as “historically unmoored, confusing, inconsistent, and almost universally criticized by both scholars and judges alike.”
Ultimately, however, the judge ruled that precedent was firmly established and that “it is still the law of the land and I am not free to ignore it … the law is the law.” Vinson indicated that the cross might not have to come down if the city sold or leased the area surrounding it to a private party of non-governmental entity “so long as the transfer was bona fide and not a subterfuge.”
Monica Miller, an attorney with the American Humanist Association’s legal center who’d argued on behalf of the plaintiffs, said she was pleased with the ruling.
“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 released by the AHA.