The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) may be preparing for yet another battle over the presence of a cross on public property. This time, the scene of the debate is Middleborough, Massachusetts, where a large, brick cross with the word “worship” present on it is creating angst among secularists who view it as an overt constitutional violation.
The structure, which was built on a traffic island by the Middleborough Kiwanis Club back in 1959, is considered — unofficially — to be a historic landmark by residents and local leaders, alike. The cross, which measures 12 feet in height by seven feet in width, includes a Kiwanis emblem at its base. It was originally conceived and advocated for decades ago by the Rev. Francis Schlater, a faith leader who is now deceased.
While many locals support the cross’ presence, a lawyer who drove past it a few months ago decided to file a complaint with the state’s Department of Transportation (DOT). The roadside religious symbol, he contends, violates the separation of church and state.
The battle is shaping up to be a complicated one, with the Kiwanis Club doubling down on its defense of the cross. Local officials, too, hold a positive view of the symbol and, thus far, seem to be defending it. But the state, which owns a portion of the traffic island, reportedly wants the town to remove it. The ACLU, naturally, agrees with this stance and is siding against Kiwanis.
The civil liberties group, infamous for fighting religious displays on public property, is hoping that the town simply moves the cross to private property. Or, ACLU attorney Sarah Wunsch claims that another option would be to open up the island to all religious expression — an action that would force local officials to allow any and all faith messages to accompany the cross.
But while Wunsch, who says that the town “has a problem,” stands firmly opposed to the cross in its current form, others, like Jane Lopes, the chairwoman of Middleborough’s Historical Commission, claim that the symbol was originally intended to be non-denominational.
“It was meant to encompass all faiths,” Lopes said. “The dedication was non-denominational, and it was hoped people of all faiths would take this in the spirit in which it was intended.”
Kiwanis Club president Robert Kinney, too, seems surprised by the anonymous lawyer, who has such major issues with the cross’ presence. In an interview with EnterpriseNews.com, Kinney voiced concerns over demands that it be moved and claimed that the cross can’t be relocated without destroying it.
“DOT said the man intends to come to Middleborough and make a ruckus,” Kinney said in a Boston.com piece, going on to state his surprise. “Figure about 2,000 cars pass every day for more than 50 years, and I’ve never been told by anyone they take exception to it. Then one Boston attorney took umbrage.”
The state’s DOT examined the cross following the lawyer’s complaint and found that one of its arms allegedly hangs over the state’s right of way by about six inches, although the majority of the cross is on local property.
Board of Selectmen chairman (a local official) Alfred Rullo said that, if the ACLU and the lawyer in question take the town on, that local leaders will petition the Historical Commission to look into making the cross a landmark.
“The cross has been there since 1959,” Rullo said. “If they come to the town with the issue, we’ll raise its historic significance.”
Wunsch, though, warns that a legal battle would be a money-waster for Middleborough. With neither side appearing to back down, we’ll have to wait and see how the case unfolds.
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