A panel with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit ruled Feb. 19 that a historic 34-foot cross can remain at Bayview Park in Pensacola, Florida, reversing an earlier decision by the same court.
In May 2016, the American Humanist Association and the Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a lawsuit against the city of Pensacola on behalf of four individuals claiming that the cross violated the Constitution’s Establishment Clause.
In June 2017, U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson ruled against the 79-year-old cross, concluding that it failed the Lemon Test, which states that state-supported religious entities must have a secular purpose. But in his decision, Vinson also wrote that he believed the U.S. founders “would have most likely found this lawsuit absurd.”
A three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit unanimously upheld Vinson’s ruling in September 2018. But after the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in favor of the Bladensburg Cross in Maryland last June, the high court ordered the circuit court to rehear the Pensacola case.
In light of the Supreme Court’s decision, the 11th Circuit changed course, acknowledging that the Florida cross has become “embedded in the fabric of the Pensacola community” and that removing it could “strike many as aggressively hostile to religion.”
“The Supreme Court made clear in [the Bladensburg] decision that the days of government roaming the land to scrub all public symbols of faith are over,” said Michael Berry, general counsel for religious liberty firm First Liberty Institute. “We’re thrilled to see our victory in that case already making an impact and protecting religious freedom across the country.”
“The Supreme Court has now made clear that religious symbols are an important part of our nation’s history and culture,” affirmed Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel at Becket, the religious liberty law firm that represented the city.
Franklin Graham took to social media to celebrate the ruling: “Thankful for the ruling by the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals that Pensacola’s Bayview Park cross can stay on city property because it does not violate the Establishment Clause of the Constitution.”
While Freedom From Religion Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor claims that the cross promotes the discrimination of non-Christians, many Pensacola residents say that the monument stands as a symbol of unity within their community. Built in 1941 as the U.S. was preparing to enter World War II, the cross has served as a location for Easter sunrise services, Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day remembrances and many other community gatherings.
“Pensacola is a city with a rich and diverse history. The Bayview Cross is an important part of that history as a symbol of our community’s coming together during a national crisis,” said Grover C. Robinson IV, mayor of Pensacola. “We are pleased by the court’s ruling in this case, and today we celebrate our long-awaited victory and the preservation of the Bayview Cross.”
Above: The Bayview Park Cross in Pensacola, Florida.
Photo: Courtesy of Becket