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Longview fire station's cross relocated

By Meredith Shamburger
Dec. 7, 2016 at 11:53 p.m.
Updated Dec. 8, 2016 at 7:37 a.m.

A decorated cross that had received a complaint could be seen relocated Wednesday on a private lot  next to Longview Fire Department Station No.  6.

A cross that caused a stir when it was erected a year ago as part of a Longview fire station's Christmas display went up again this year — until city officials asked firefighters to remove it.

It still can be seen from the fire station at 2808 McCann Road, but now is legal.

The cross at Fire Station No. 6, which last year drew a complaint from a Wisconsin organization because it violated constitutional restrictions on government endorsing a religion, now is being displayed on nearby private property.

City spokesman Shawn Hara said that when City Hall received the complaint a year ago, "The decision was made to just let it be and deal with it the following year.

"So this year when they put the cross back up, we instructed them to go ahead and take it back down," he said.

In its letter last December, the Freedom From Religion Foundation of Madison, Wisconsin, cited First Amendment concerns about government endorsing a particular religion.

"A concerned area resident reported to (the foundation) that a Latin cross was recently erected on the lawn of Fire Station 6, next to the station's sign, in view of the street," the letter said. "A picture of the cross, which is illuminated by lights at night, is enclosed. We write to ensure that the Longview Fire Department remains neutral toward religion, as required by the Constitution."

The First Amendment's Establishment Clause prohibits the state from endorsing one religion over another or from endorsing religion over nonreligion.

And the U.S. Supreme Court has issued several rulings against religious holiday displays on government property. In its letter, the foundation noted that the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals explicitly ruled in ACLU of Illinois v. city of St. Charles that a fire station could not display a lighted cross during Christmas.

"The whole point of state-church separation is to ensure that everyone has the right to worship or choose to not worship as they chose," said Sam Grover, a staff attorney with the Freedom From Religion Foundation. "You can't have freedom of religious belief in a country that doesn't have freedom from religion in government."

Hara said the city does not have a specific policy regarding Christmas displays, but in practice it discourages explicit religious displays in accordance with constitutional law.

"It's our practice to follow what case law has shown throughout the United States," he said. "So that is to not display on our city-owned property displays that are specifically sectarian — things like the cross or the manger scene."

The fire department's cross is not the only time the city has become the target of a letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

In July, the organization sent a letter to Gregg County Clerk Connie Wade about a display of crosses inside the courthouse. The crosses belonged to one of Wade's employees and caught the attention of the Freedom From Religion Foundation after photos of the display were published when a same-sex couple at the time was denied application for a marriage license at the office.

The employee voluntarily took down the crosses not long after the letter was received.

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