Activist group's letter leaves Dugger debating what to do about cross on public land

Tuesday, July 17, 2012
(By Mark Stalcup) A cross constructed by Dugger's Faith Community Church in 2010 stands nearly three stories high on town property, due west of the remnants of the former Dugger Schools sign. Now, activists claim it violates the U.S. Constitution's seperation of church and state and seek that the religious symbol be removed from public property. The present town council -- none of whom were in office when the cross was installed -- are now debating what to do next.

An activist group's legal threat means the Town of Dugger now has a cross to bear.

The only question is where.

At issue: A massive cross with "Jesus Saves" written upon it erected on town property.

Problems arose, Councilman Kermit King said, when the town council received a letter earlier this month threatening legal action from United Americans for the Preservation of the Separation of Church and State, a Washington D.C. civil liberties group.

The group gave the town 30 days to respond with their plans for a religious symbol constructed on town property which activists contend violates Constitutional protections separating church and state.

The town's options at present seem to be to remove the display, sell the land -- or fight a court battle.

A decision's expected at the next town council session, slated for 6 p.m. Aug. 6.

The cross, constructed by Dugger's Faith Community Church in 2010, stands nearly three stories high on town property, due west of the remnants of the former Dugger Schools sign.

"I'm not positive what we're going to do," said Town Council President Dwight Nielson. "Our recommendation (Monday night) was to make (the church) move it."

That 3-0 vote by the council seemed initially to end the controversy.

However, 24 hours later, the town's been contacted by a coalition of local churches offering to buy the property and keep the cross where it stands.

"We may just sell that plot, but it takes a lot of effort," Nielson said. "The land has to be surveyed and put up for sale, and it has to be an open bid. There's no guarantee they'll get it."

Nielson also held out the prospect of a court battle with an assist from an as-yet unnamed advocacy group.

"I don't want to say who they are yet, until I'm sure they want to get into it," he said. However, he thinks a court battle's unlikely.

"Probably not, I don't know. You tend to lose those type of things, and I know that, but we'll check into that. I believe we have a group that wants to come in and help us with it."

For the town, which is presently facing a budget shortfall of $65,000 and two pending tort claims from town employees, the prospect of another lawsuit was financially daunting.

"You definitely don't want to go to court with it, because you wouldn't win," said King.

The town winning a legal battle also seems unlikely, given precedent.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has repeatedly sued over the placement of religious monuments on government property and won.

In 2002, then-Indiana Gov. Frank O'Bannon lost his bid to place the Ten Commandments in the Statehouse after the U.S. Supreme Court denied review of a Court of Appeals ruling their placement in a government building was unconstitutional.

Still, efforts to remove the cross have offended some Dugger churchgoers like Vicki Figg. In Washington D.C. for a Christians United For Israel rally, Figg said she and other churchgoers are ready to fight to keep the cross.

"I am not afraid of (the activist group). They will have a fight on their hands," Figg said. "We may not have the funds to hire an attorney, but the people of Dugger are represented by a Higher Power and we will prevail. Our cross will stay where it is."

Sullivan's Raemie Bowne is also concerned.

"Maybe they should do something about the cross-shaped utility poles, too...It isn't hurting anyone, yet they may have to take it down because it's on city property and not private," she said. "Some people just need something to complain about to hurt others. It's nonsense. Some people need to find Jesus, or something else to do with their time."

Dugger's cross lasted two years without a lawsuit.

It was constructed during the summer of 2010 by the church and is located on the west side of town near State Road 54.

Town officials on the previous town council -- this present board is completely new -- did not pay for the construction of the cross.

However, that prior council gave permission for it to be erected on their land. Some also helped clean the cross up after it was spray painted by vandals.

Town officials have repeatedly said the community's generally been supportive, though a few residents have raised concerns about what placing a religious symbol on town property could entail.

"I think some people thought it might open a whole can of worms," then-Town Council President Bill Pirtle said in 2010. "Like there would be requirements we have signs put there about same-sex marriage, or abortion, and it's not that at all. As I understand it, the town of Dugger owns the property, and it's just like putting it in our yard."

The cross only drew the attention of activists -- and a threatened lawsuit -- after the Dugger Town Council suggested in April both a reconstructed school sign and cross could eventually be lit.

However, the council raised questions over how the utility bill could be split between the church and the school.

The town never intended to pay the electric bill for illuminating the cross, Nielson said.

"(United Americans for the Preservation of the Separation of Church and State) said we offered to pay for it," Nielson said. "We never did."

Still, the prospect of a public school and a church sharing a utility bill raised concerns.

The civil liberties group, having seen media coverage of the cross in area publications including the Daily World, responded with the letter demanding action.

Concerns had arisen even before then locally.

In that April council session, some Dugger residents raised worries the sign could potentially open the town up to lawsuits.

At that time, town officials were unwilling to remove it.

"I didn't put it up there, and I'm not taking it down," said Nielson in April.

However, in the aftermath of the letter, King said he understands some of the group's perspective.

"It has been that way since they passed that law against church in school, and you know, there's two sides to every story, even on that. You wouldn't want one prayer given in school if it was Islam, and you were Catholic. You wouldn't want Buddhists coming in, saying a Buddhist prayer and influencing your kids."

Still, one irony strikes him.

"I think even Congress opens with a prayer. They still say a prayer in Congress, don't they?"

Nielson, likewise, said no matter what the town decides to do, "the worst thing they can do is make us move it."

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  • I believe joe king is from that area and he was against the cross just saying.

    -- Posted by trucker1234 on Tue, Jul 17, 2012, at 11:34 PM
  • People need to remember the CONSTITUTION OF THE UNITED STATES. The seperation of CHURCH and STATE. Not much seperation going on here.

    -- Posted by Barb and Hay Wire on Wed, Jul 18, 2012, at 8:01 AM
  • Sell the land. Protect the taxpayers. Pay some of your bills. If the churches don't get that piece of property, they can move their cross down the street.

    -- Posted by ellis1 on Wed, Jul 18, 2012, at 8:58 AM
  • Telephone poles are an homage to the FSM as the wires represent His Noodly Appendage.

    Glory be to the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and to the Midgit, and to the Pirates. As it was in the beginning, is now (With a mountain), and ever shall be (and trees), world without end (and with Pirates). R'Amen.

    -- Posted by per moenia urbis on Wed, Jul 18, 2012, at 9:48 AM
  • Jesus does save. One Nation under GOD with liberty and justice for all.

    -- Posted by lintonite on Wed, Jul 18, 2012, at 9:56 AM
  • You can sure tell Satan is alive and well and staying busy..If the God haters don't like the way things are here in the U.S. maybe they should move to Cuba or N. Korea!!!

    -- Posted by lbyutzy on Wed, Jul 18, 2012, at 10:11 AM
  • their is one guy from dugger that has been raising stink about the town since they tried to fire his dad.... just wonder if he isnt behind this to

    -- Posted by hunter86 on Wed, Jul 18, 2012, at 11:05 AM
  • people just want to argue and complain. If everyone is so worried about keeping church and state seperate, and they have so many problems with a cross erected that just says "Jesus Saves", then people just need to stop using US money because it all says "IN GOD WE TRUST."

    -- Posted by cmcammon on Wed, Jul 18, 2012, at 11:11 AM
  • Have to agree with ellis1, if there are churches willing to purchase the property then the cross stays where it is, the city can gain some needed money, and the dispute is resolved.

    Why take the time and money to fight what has been shown repeatedly to be a losing battle when there is a win-win-win solution available?

    -- Posted by RB on Wed, Jul 18, 2012, at 11:47 AM
  • This does NOT affect separation of church and state. The ACLU likes to bully folks into thinking the CHRISTIANS will lose the case and the prospective costs mean just curl up and die. INSTEAD OF GUESSING, PLEASE CONTACT FREE LEGAL HELP: Either Alliance Defending Freedom, 800 835 5233, or website, or The American Center for Law and Justice, and main page, tele 757 226 2489. They will help with this, for free. DONT LET THE ACLU BULLIES WIN THIS ONE, Dugger!

    -- Posted by captmom on Wed, Jul 18, 2012, at 12:12 PM
  • I say sell advertising space to Wal-Mart and have another sign next to it that says "And so will you at Wal-Mart". Lol. Frickin christ people, don't you have something better to do.

    -- Posted by theotherside on Wed, Jul 18, 2012, at 12:27 PM
  • The town of Dugger will most certainly lose any such lawsuit, and at great cost to the taxpayers. The town cannot endorse any specific religion.

    Simply sell the property -- it is a win-win situation.

    -- Posted by Lil' Hahn on Wed, Jul 18, 2012, at 1:04 PM
  • Move it to the church just a mile down the road THEN it's on CHURCH'S land! OR these people can close there eyes and NOT look at it and then PRAY they don't wreck. OH wait that's what happens these people don't believe until something bad happens THEN they want to pray and have GOD come to there rescue!! Remember this because GOD will!!!!

    -- Posted by greenecountymom on Wed, Jul 18, 2012, at 3:30 PM
  • I say the church right down the road next to Casey's should build an even bigger Cross, nothing could stop them from putting that on their own property. Build the biggest cross and light it up so it can be seen for miles at night...ha! So sick of the ACLU and their hypocrisies! I would even donate to see that bigger cross built and sure other's would too :)

    -- Posted by sassy12 on Wed, Jul 18, 2012, at 4:18 PM
  • This is settled law. Keep the cross on private land or don't put it up. What does putting up a giant cross have to do with being a Christian anyway? That won't get you into heaven and it's not going to convert anyone. Waste of money that could be better spent feeding the hungry, healing the sick, and clothing the naked.

    Also, this isn't coming from the ACLU. This is Americans for the Separation of Church and State. They're led by a United Church of Christ Minister. Christians should be thanking this group. What if you lived in a town that was majority Hindu or Muslim and they wanted to put up a symbol of their faith on town land? You'd be glad for this protection.

    -- Posted by Jarhead98 on Wed, Jul 18, 2012, at 5:29 PM
  • Amen!!

    -- Posted by truthorfiction on Wed, Jul 18, 2012, at 5:34 PM
  • amen lulu54!

    -- Posted by vintner on Thu, Jul 19, 2012, at 10:30 AM
  • Barb & Hay Wire

    Separation of church and state is not a phrase used in the constitution. Maybe you should remember that. The first amendment only says that the government cannot prohibit the free exercise of religion. period. If we want to take down every nativity scene in every public park at Christmas and remove every bible verse from a public place we would have to destroy nearly every national monument we have, all our currency, and much of the sayings of our founders since they quoted more scripture than most preachers do today. If people today do not want God in their lives than that is their choice but please do not act like that was the choice of our founding fathers or founding documents!

    -- Posted by mattjjat on Thu, Jul 19, 2012, at 11:21 AM
  • Some of you rug rats make me sick. When some thing goes wrong and I mean really wrong what do you say OH GOD or GOD HELP US or GOD HELP ME You know when you stand before him and you will as will I. He will tell you about this day and every other time you really did something that hurt him. Thank you MY LORD for not haveing to waste your breath to remind me of this day. A-MEN.

    -- Posted by Old and Gray on Thu, Jul 19, 2012, at 12:36 PM
  • @mattjjat

    I have a college history minor, so while I agree that most (if not all) the founding fathers were Christians and wanted God in their own life, most (if not all) also were very dilligent in their efforts to maintain religious freedom in this country and to keep government and religion separate for the benefit of both.

    "The Government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion."

    ~1797 Treaty of Tripoli signed by John Adams

    "Christianity neither is, nor ever was a part of the common law."

    ~Thomas Jefferson, letter to Dr. Thomas Cooper, February 10, 1814

    "The civil government ... functions with complete success ... by the total separation of the Church from the State."

    ~James Madison, 1819, Writings, 8:432, quoted from Gene Garman, "Essays In Addition to America's Real Religion"

    "And I have no doubt that every new example will succeed, as every past one has done, in shewing that religion & Govt will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together."

    ~James Madison, letter to Edward Livingston, July 10, 1822

    "Religious matters are to be separated from the jurisdiction of the state, not because they are beneath the interests of the state but, quite to the contrary, because they are too high and holy and thus are beyond the competence of the state."

    "God has appointed two kinds of government in the world, which are distinct in their nature, and ought never to be confounded together; one of which is called civil, the other ecclesiastical government."

    Isaac Backus, colonial Baptist from New England, An Appeal to the Public for Religious Liberty. 1773

    Leave the matter of religion to the family altar, the church, and the private school, supported entirely by private contributions. Keep the church and the State forever separate.

    Ulysses S. Grant, Speech at Des Moines, Iowa, 1875

    We all agree that neither the Government nor political parties ought to interfere with religious sects. It is equally true that religious sects ought not to interfere with the Government or with political parties. We believe that the cause of good government and the cause of religion both suffer by all such interference.

    Rutherford B. Hayes, Speech, Marion OH, 1875

    And there are plenty of others I could include. These men were not trying to attack Christianity, on the contrary, they believed that separating government and religion was for the benefit of each entity.

    -- Posted by RB on Thu, Jul 19, 2012, at 1:11 PM
  • RB

    The separation was for the government not to impose or mandate a religion on the people. I , as a Christian, would not want a law making everyone a Christian but believe that Christianity as a whole had and still does have an effect on the laws and government of our land. You as an educated man on the subject would be the first to agree that Christianity played a huge and important role in the founding of our country and would not be as great as she is today without that influence.

    "While we are zealously performing the duties of good citizens and soldiers, we certainly ought not to be inattentive to the higher duties of religion. To the distinguished character of Patriot, it should be our highest glory to add the more distinguished character of Christian."

    -George Washington

    1st U.S. President-The Writings of Washington, pp. 342-343.

    "The highest glory of the American Revolution was this - that it connected, in one indissoluble bond, the principles of civil government with the principles of Christianity." - John Quincy Adams

    "Whereas it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almight God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly implore His protection and favor." - George Washington

    "Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed the conviction that these liberties are the gift of God?" - Thomas Jefferson

    "It can not be emphasized too strongly or too often that this great nation was founded, not by religionists, but by Christians, not on religions but on the gospel of Jesus Christ." - Patrick Henry

    Religious liberty is a right for all--Christian and non-Christian alike--and must be protected;

    The national government may not create an established church; and

    Religious references and appeals to God are appropriate in the public square.

    -- Posted by mattjjat on Thu, Jul 19, 2012, at 1:33 PM
  • RB

    The first line in your argument says it all.

    The separation was for the government not to impose or mandate a religion on the people.

    Do you not see how someone of another faith might take putting a religious symbol on public land as an endorsement of that religion over another? To many it might seem that the town of dugger is suggesting that the government of the town is putting that faith above all others.

    That would make dugger a hostile enviroment for anyone wanting to do business there that's not christian. Seems to me the town would welcome any business reguardless of faith, and thank God for it.

    Also and I thought of this while reading the comments above. Who has been paying for mowing the area around the cross? Is it paid for by the town? Then the town is using tax money for upkeep on the cross. Even if sullivan county is using the work release people, the same thing applies.

    -- Posted by cyberfreeze on Thu, Jul 19, 2012, at 10:03 PM
  • The first amendment to the U.S. Constitution says, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof:" The tenth amendment says, "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."

    If Congress made a law saying citizens of Dugger could NOT put up a cross on locally-owned public land that would violate the Constitution. It's time for the people to tell Congress and the courts to stop prohibiting the "free exercise of religion".

    -- Posted by Jeff Adams on Sat, Jul 21, 2012, at 8:39 AM
  • Barb and Hay Wire.....Show me where the words seperation of church and state are in the Constitution?

    -- Posted by homesweethome on Sat, Jul 21, 2012, at 8:31 PM
  • Although the words 'separation of church and state' do not appear in the Constitution and were taken from a phrase used by Thomas Jefferson, the legal precedents set by this country have been based on the justice's interpretation of the intent of the founding fathers and the words they wrote.

    The above quotes I included, among MANY others, provided evidence that the intent of the founding fathers was to provide separation of church and state. In fact, if you research the history of Thomas Jefferson, the author of our Declaration of Independence, including on sites such as, it is widely accepted that he was the least Christian of our presidents and did not practice Christianity in its commonly accepted form although did believe in the morality present in the Bible. The quote above from matjjat that appears on the Jefferson Memorial is not an actual quote from Thomas Jefferson and is a compilation of bits and pieces of several quotes that were combined by the designers of the monument.

    The intent of the founding fathers was not to attack Christianity, but to make both government and religion stronger by keeping them separate. Most of the founding fathers had been jaded by the power of the Church of England and its influence over the government and did not want to see the same happen within their new country. Also most settlers of this country wanted freedom to practice their beliefs as they wanted without intervention from the government.

    As noted above, opening the door between church and state potentially opens the door between ALL churches and the state and just because the current dispute involves a belief that you agree with does not always mean that would be the case.

    Also opening the door between church and state potentially allows for more government involvement and control over church. While many would like to see prayer in school, would you also like to see worship districts set up like school districts dictating which church you attend, or provide the government power to select which version of the Bible you use, or have committees set up to handles complaints about sermons? The separation legally established between church and state is designed to protect BOTH religion and government and is not designed to be an attack on anyone's religion.

    The legal precedent has been established by some very intelligent people who did so for what they believed to be very good reasons and has been reviewed and maintained for generation upon generation within our country. Removing the barrier that has been established is simply "opening a can of words" and has potential consequences not being considered by those that simply believe that these laws are an attack upon their beliefs.

    -- Posted by RB on Sun, Jul 22, 2012, at 11:51 AM
  • Above should be "opening a can of worms"

    -- Posted by RB on Sun, Jul 22, 2012, at 11:55 AM
  • Maybe we who support this public Cross should also be careful in not missing the bigger picture.

    As far as I know, there is no instruction or commission given by Jesus or His disciples to "Go unto all the world and build 30 foot lighted crosses" throughout the land. Not saying anything wrong with this, just that it might be down the list of priorities in a lost world.

    -- Posted by old linton native on Mon, Jul 23, 2012, at 1:36 PM
  • I think old linton native may have just hit the nail on the head. Thanks for refocusing us.

    -- Posted by Thought 4 today on Tue, Jul 24, 2012, at 6:53 PM
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