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Federal judge reluctantly rules Florida cross in public park must come down

A federal judge ruled reluctantly on Monday that a cross in a public park in Pensacola, Florida, must be removed because it violates the Constitution. The judge gave the city of Pensacola 30 days to remove the suddenly controversial cross from Bayview Park, where it has stood — in some form — for about 75 years. (Image Source: WEAR-TV screenshot)

A federal judge reluctantly ruled earlier this week that a cross positioned in a public Florida park must be removed because it fails to pass the so-called “Lemon test.”

U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson gave the city of Pensacola 30 days to remove the suddenly controversial cross from Bayview Park, where it has stood — in some form — for about 75 years. He ordered the city to pay $1 in damages to the four residents represented by the American Humanist Association, the Washington Times reported.

“I am aware that there is a lot of support in Pensacola to keep the cross as is, and I understand and respect that point of view,” said the judge, who was appointed by former President Ronald Reagan. “But, the law is the law.”

Vinson contended that the Founders “would have most likely found this lawsuit absurd.”

“Count me among those who hope the Supreme Court will one day revisit and reconsider its Establishment Clause jurisprudence, but my duty is to enforce the law as it now stands,” he said.

Monica Miller, senior counsel at the American Humanist Association’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center, praised the court’s decision. She described the cross’ place in the public park “as violative of the First Amendment.” Miller told Vinson that the cross “is a constant reminder to non-Christians that Christians are valued more by their city government.”

“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,” she said, according to the Times.

The 34-foot, white, concrete cross, which costs $233 per year in upkeep, or about 0.03 percent of the city’s annual maintenance budget, was donated in 1969 by the Pensacola Jaycees, a civics organization for young men, and until now, had not been a problem.

In fact, the area surrounding the cross has over the years played host to many sunrise church services on Easter Sunday.

“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,” Vinson said.

Despite his opposition to the cross’ removal, Vinson concluded that the cross failed the “Lemon test,” a three-part standard established by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1971 decision in Lemon v. Kurtzman. The first part of the test demands public symbols have a secular purpose in order to be constitutional.

“Lemon is routinely criticized, but it is still the law of the land and I am not free to ignore it,” Vinson said. “[T]he Bayview cross fails the first prong of the Lemon test and, thus, runs afoul of the First Amendment as currently interpreted by the Supreme Court.”

For what it’s worth, Pensacola Mayor Ashton Hayward, a Republican, defended the cross in 2015, when the American Humanist Association first called for the display to be removed.

“Personally, I hope there is always a place for religion in the public square. I surely don’t want to remove it,” he told the Pensacola News-Journal at the time.

Vernon Stewart, a spokesman for the mayor, said city staff was reviewing the decision and the mayor would “ultimately be the one to decide how to proceed.”

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