Following atheists' claims that a cross that is part of a sculpture in an Indiana state park violates the separation of church and state, Republican Gov. Mike Pence is vowing to defend the veterans' memorial.
The state's Department of Natural Resources has reportedly agreed to accept the statue and to permanently place it in Whitewater Memorial State Park, a decision opposed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, an atheist activist group.
"I fully support the decision by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources to accept the sculpture commissioned by local citizens to honor all who have fallen in service to our country," Pence said in a statement. "The freedom of religion does not require freedom from religion."
The governor went on to share his belief that both the state and national Constitutions allow for such a symbol on public property.
A screen shot from the Keep the Cross on the Carving at Whitewater Memorial State Park Facebook page
"So long as I am governor, I will defend the right of Hoosiers to display this sculpture in Whitewater Memorial State Park as a lasting tribute to the service and sacrifice of all who have worn the uniform of the United States," Pence continued.
But Dan Barker, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, called the cross' presence in the park "un-American" and told TheBlaze Wednesday that his organization is still considering next steps.
"We think it's wrong, but you can't just say we're going to sue," he said. "There's so many ducks that have to be in a row … the picture we saw of it has a prominent Christian cross on it and that's not the way to honor our veterans."
Barker, who said it's important to also commemorate atheists who have served in the military, argued that a Christian cross fails to do so — and said that his organization will carefully consider how to respond.
Debate over the symbol first set off earlier this sumer when Wendell Bias, a local restaurant owner and an Army veteran, reached out to the Department of Natural Resources, complaining that the cross wasn’t appropriate, the Indianapolis Star reported.
“I just thought that a memorial to veterans in a veterans’ park didn’t need to be turned into a religious shrine,” Bias told the outlet.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation then wrote a letter August 20, complaining about that the 14-inch cross that is part of the memorial should promptly be removed, though Bias said he wasn't sure who contacted the organization, according to the Indianapolis Star.
Indiana Governor Mike Pence speaks during the National Rifle Association Annual Meeting Leadership Forum on April 25, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana. The NRA annual meeting runs from April 25-27. (John Gress/Getty Images)
“No secular purpose, no matter how sincere, will detract from the overall message that the Latin cross stands for Christianity and the overall display promotes Christianity,” wrote Rebecca S. Markert, an attorney with the atheist group.
The cross is at the bottom of an 8-foot wooden statue that includes a bald eagle, a soldier and Indiana’s state flag along with a message that reads, “All gave some; Some gave all.”
Many local veterans and their supports have rallied in an effort to defend the cross, with more than 1,100 people joining a Facebook group called “Keep the Cross on the Carving at Whitewater Memorial State Park.”
(H/T: Indianapolis Star)