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