Indiana town looks to avoid legal battle over cross


A cross with the message "Jesus Saves" has become another flashpoint in a debate over the First Amendment.

The 26-foot-high cross in the Southern Indiana community of Dugger attracted the attention of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. From its Washington, D.C., headquarters, the organization threatened to sue on grounds that the cross, which is on public property, violates the U.S. Constitution's Establishment Clause.

Town officials are inclined to comply with the complaint and may sell the plot of land or move the cross to private property.

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That's a wise approach compared to paying lawyers to argue over an issue that has defied the U.S. Supreme Court's attempts to resolve it since World War II.

The high court has tried to find middle ground between the Founding Fathers' obvious original intent and groups such as Americans United, which want to keep Judeo-Christian expressions off public property.

In terms of original intent, the Founding Fathers clearly had no objection to religious expressions on public property.

The Liberty Bell features a passage from Leviticus: "Proclaim liberty throughout the land, and to all the inhabitants thereof." Benjamin Franklin quoted Psalm 127 in deliberations over the Constitution, and no one ruled him out of order. He also proposed a national seal with Moses dividing the Red Sea.

The Capitol Building has several Scripture references on its walls. The Library of Congress features a passage from the prophet Micah: "What does the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy Lord?"

The attempt to use the Establishment Clause-which was designed to avoid a government-sanctioned church, such as the Church of England-as a tool to banish religious expression on government property is a hopeless task.

Still, the Supreme Court and other federal courts have contributed more confusion than wisdom on the matter, with religious expression approved in some public settings but not in others. In case of doubt, consult your lawyer, if you can afford one.

Dugger's approach skips all of that. Town Council President Dwight Nielsen thinks the parcel of land could sell for $2,000 to $3,000.

"Our legal fees would probably run that much on the first day," he said.

Meanwhile, thanks to the Americans United complaint, the message, "Jesus Saves," has gained attention well beyond the borders of a town of a few hundred inhabitants.

Russ Pulliam
Russ Pulliam

Russ is a columnist for The Indianapolis Star, the director of the Pulliam Fellowship, and a member of God's World Publications' board of directors.


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