Press Release

BREAKING: Court wants to uphold historic Pensacola cross, but can't — yet Majority says cross should be constitutional, city says it will appeal

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Melinda Skea 202-349-7224 media@becketlaw.org

Additional Information

WASHINGTON, D.C. – A historic World War II-era memorial cross in Pensacola, Florida, must come down, according to a federal appeals court that ruled in favor of an atheist activist group in Kondrat’yev v. City of Pensacola. But the court said it ruled that way only because it was bound by “flawed precedent” from thirty-five years ago that “needs to be reversed.” The city says it will appeal.

In 2016, the American Humanist Association sued the city on behalf of four individuals who said the cross was offensive. Last year, a federal judge ruled that the cross violated the Constitution’s Establishment Clause and must be torn down. The ruling relied on a case decided by the Eleventh Circuit in 1983, called ACLU v. Rabun County, which also struck down a cross. The Eleventh Circuit today stated that it was “bound” by Rabun to rule against the cross, but two of the three judges said Rabun was “wrong” and “needs to be reversed.” They urged the full Eleventh Circuit “to rehear this case” to “correct the errors that Rabun perpetuates” and uphold the cross.

“The Constitution doesn’t require the government to scrub every religious symbol from the public square,” said Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel at Becket, which is representing the city. “The Supreme Court has repeatedly said that the government can recognize religion as a fundamental part of our history and culture, and we’re glad that the majority of the court agreed that the cross is constitutional.”

A wooden cross was first placed in Pensacola’s Bayview Park in 1941 by the local chapter of the Junior Chamber of Commerce (Jaycees)—a private, civic, nonprofit organization—as the United States prepared to enter World War II. For decades, the Jaycees and other groups have hosted community events at the memorial, including Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day remembrances. Today it continues to serve as a gathering place for both religious and nonreligious groups within the Pensacola community and as a significant symbol of the city’s history. The cross is one of over 170 displays in Pensacola parks reflecting different aspects of the city’s unique history and culture.

“This cross is more than a religious symbol,” said Ashton Hayward, mayor of Pensacola. “It’s an important part of our city’s history and culture – just like many other monuments celebrated throughout Pensacola’s parks. To tear down this symbol just because a few are offended by it shows hostility to religion, not neutrality. The city looks forward to being vindicated on appeal—as the majority of the court said it should be.”

The city has 14 days to ask for rehearing by the Eleventh Circuit or 90 days to ask the Supreme Court to hear the case. The Supreme Court is also considering whether to review a challenge to the Bladensburg Cross, a World War I memorial in Maryland. Becket, which is representing the City of Pensacola free of charge, recently filed a brief in that case. Pensacola is also represented by J. Nixon Daniel, III, and Terrie L. Didier of Beggs & Lane.

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Melinda Skea at media@becketlaw.org or 202-349-7224. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

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Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions and has a 100% win-rate before the United States Supreme Court. For over 20 years, it has successfully defended clients of all faiths, including Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians (read more here).