The City of Pensacola has thirty days to remove the controversial but longstanding cross in Bayview Park, federal judge Roger Vinson ruled on Monday.
A group of Pensacola residents, represented by the American Humanist Association and the Freedom From Religion Foundation, sued the city in 2016 seeking the removal of the cross, calling its placement on public, government-maintained property unconstitutional.
Ultimately, Judge Vinson agreed.
“After about 75 years, the Bayview Cross can no longer stand as a permanent fixture on city-owned property,” Vinson wrote in the ruling. “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. But, the law is the law.”
The 34-foot-tall white concrete cross has stood in the popular park since 1969, and replaced an earlier wooden cross on the same site which was erected in 1941. Ironically, the 1941 cross was erected by the National Youth Administration, a New Deal-era federal agency. The current cross was erected by the Pensacola Jaycees, a civic organization, and given to the city, which spends around $233 a year to keep it cleaned, painted, and illuminated at night.
Vinson said Monday that he didn’t personally agree with the law but was bound by law to order the cross be removed.
“Consistent with that directly-on-point and binding case law, the 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,” wrote Vinson, referring to the Supreme Court’s landmark 1971 Lemon v. Kurtzman decision. “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.”
A statement from the Freedom From Religion Foundation called Vinson’s ruling a “big legal victory.”
“Even this judge had to agree he had no choice but to find this government-owned, 34-foot cross in a public park in violation of the Constitution,” said FFRF co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor. “The Constitution holds and reason has prevailed.”
“We are pleased that the court struck down this cross as violative of the First Amendment,” said Monica Miller, Senior Counsel at the American Humanist Association’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center. “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.”
City officials hadn’t decided Monday whether or not to appeal the judge’s ruling.
“We are in receipt of the order issued by Judge Vinson,” said city spokesman Vernon Stewart. “We are in the process of reviewing it with legal counsel. Pensacola Mayor Ashton Hayward is traveling and will ultimately be the one to decide how to proceed.”
Read Judge Vinson’s ruling: