NEOSHO, Mo. — The city of Neosho said in a statement Friday it will not cooperate with a request for the removal or relocation of a cross from Big Spring Park. The request came from a Wisconsin-based organization that advocates separation of church and state.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter to outgoing Neosho Mayor Charles Collinsworth on May 11, its staff attorney Rebecca Markert said. The letter, which was written by Markert and posted on the organization's website, says a "concerned local resident" contacted the FFRF about the cross. The individual did not provide his or her name publicly.
The foundation contends that the display of the cross on public property violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution barring any government sponsor of religion. Markert said the organization would have concerns about any religious symbols being displayed on public property, regardless of the religion represented.
"The government is not allowed to display sectarian symbols on its property," Markert said by phone Friday. "So it is unconstitutional for a city to allow a permanent display of a Christian cross in a public park. That is unconstitutional … so we’ve asked the city to remove it to abide by our Constitution.
"We don’t believe that the government should be endorsing any religion, it doesn’t matter if it was Christianity, if it was Jewish or Islamic, we would be objecting because there is religion being endorsed or having the appearance of endorsement in a public park," she added.
Calling the FFRF an "anti-religion organization" in their statement, city officials said the City Council does not believe the cross' presence violates the law. The statement said the cross has been in Big Spring Park since 1930.
"It is the unanimous opinion of the City Council that the city of Neosho will not remove the cross or take any other actions which in any way compromises the long-standing history of our city,” the statement said.
Dana Daniel, interim city manager, declined to comment beyond the city's statement.
Markert's letter did not threaten legal action, but requested the city to notify the organization of what steps it planned to take. Shortly before the city released its statement, Markert said the FFRF had not yet received a response.
She said legal action is "always an option," but that the organization preferred to resolve issues outside the courtroom and that a suit would only be brought if the Neosho resident who contacted the group wished to do so. The foundation would not bring its own lawsuit if the resident it is in contact with did not wish to do so, Markert said.
Jeff Higgins, president of Teen Challenge, an affiliate of the Neosho Area Clergy Coalition, said while he has only been in the area for the past couple of years, he did not know of any concerns about the cross previously.
"We’ve never had any worries about it until now, not to my knowledge," he said.