In the days following a judge’s ruling that the City of Pensacola must remove a longstanding cross from a local park, at least two religious liberty organizations have reached out to city officials offering pro bono legal services to appeal the decision.
U.S. District Court Judge Roger Vinson ruled on Monday that the placement of the cross on public property was unconstitutional and gave city officials 30 days to remove it. A group of Pensacola residents had sued the city in 2015, represented by the American Humanist Association and the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
“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.”
City spokesman Vernon Stewart said Wednesday that the city was still weighing its options. Ultimately, it’s Pensacola Mayor Ashton Hayward who will decide whether to comply with Vinson’s order or continue to fight the issue at the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Two organizations have reached out to Hayward to encourage him to fight the ruling. The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, based in Washington, D.C., describes itself as a “non-profit, public-interest legal and educational institute with a mission to protect the free expression of all faiths.” Orlando-based Liberty Counsel is an evangelical Christian non-profit which the Southern Poverty Law Center has listed as a hate group, a label the organization disputes.
Both groups offered to represent the city free of charge. Pensacola firm Beggs & Lane currently represents the city in the matter, on which city officials have spent in excess of $80,000 to date.
“Our attorneys specialize in appellate work and have an unparalleled record of success, including at the U.S. Supreme Court,” wrote Becket’s Deputy General Counsel Luke Goodrich to Hayward. “In the last five years, we have served as counsel to parties in more than twenty federal appeals, all but one of which resulted in victories for our clients.” In 2015, Becket prevailed over the Freedom From Religion Foundation in case that involved a statue of Jesus on federally-owned land in Montana.
Liberty Counsel’s attorneys also cited a “strong track record in Establishment Clause cases.”
“We cannot allow the Freedom From Religion Foundation to remove all vestiges of America’s religious heritage from public life, especially where the Cross in this instance has been in place, in one form or another, for over seventy-five years,” wrote attorneys Roger Gannam and Richard Mast in a letter to Hayward.
If Liberty Counsel sounds familiar, it may be because of their lengthy fight with the ACLU over school-sponsored religious activities in Santa Rosa County. Liberty Counsel sought to intervene in the suit, offering their services to the school district, but after district officials rejected the offer, Liberty Counsel sued the district itself. After a three-year legal battle, the parties reached a settlement, and the district signed a new consent decree barring employees from participating in religious activities while on the job.
Alternately, Hayward could explore the option of carving out a parcel of land around the cross and selling or donating it to a private organization, but given state and municipal rules governing the disposition of public property, that’s unlikely to happen within 30 days.
Nearly 10,000 people have signed a petition urging Hayward to save the cross.
Read Becket’s letter to Hayward:
Read Liberty Counsel’s letter to Hayward: