Local authorities in Port Neches, Texas, have decided to sell a small plot of public park land that currently hosts a large, 10-foot cross to a local church after an atheist activist group threatened to sue for its removal.
City leaders decided to sell the 20' x 20' plot of land to First United Methodist Church for just $100 — a move that would essentially protect the religious symbol's presence by converting the land from public to private, KBMT-TV reported.
The sale unfolded under Sec. 253.010 in Texas state law, which allows for properties to be sold to religious groups so long as those groups retain land locally and agree to revitalize it, according to Port Neches city attorney Lance Bradley.
The cross — which the Freedom From Religion Foundation called "unconstitutional" in a November 2015 letter — was reportedly built by a local family who attend First United Methodist Church.
So far, the Freedom From Religion Foundation is looking at the move with cautious optimism, essentially claiming victory, but with caveats.
"We are taking this initial step as a victory. They divested themselves from a religious symbol and that's a victory for state church separation," said Rebecca Markert, an attorney with the organization. "The constitution requires no religious symbols be on public property. It's typical that public land be sold to a private entity but not a religious entity but it is something we will be looking into."
A spokesperson for the Freedom From Religion Foundation later called the sale a "step in the right direction," but said that the group wants to be sure that the move was entirely appropriate, and also wants there to be clear markers indicating that the cross is on private land.
"One hundred dollars to a church seems pretty sweetheart to us and it seems like there was no bidding process," the spokesperson said. "They can't usually pick the buyer ahead of time. Even if all of that was kosher, we still have the concerns that the cross is still located within the park, even though the parcel is on private property."
If the Freedom From Religion Foundation finds that the sale didn't go through the proper channels then "it's not a closed case," the group said.
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