A town, a cross and the Constitution

Nearly two decades ago (and man, do I feel old!), I covered the fast-growing suburb of Edmond, Okla., for The Oklahoman, then Oklahoma's statewide newspaper. As a 20-something journalist learning my craft, I wrote about bizarre, made-for-TV murder cases in the affluent bedroom community and spent long nights at planning commission meetings chronicling NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) zoning fights.

One of my most memorable stories, though, concerned a battle over a Christian cross on the Bible Belt city's official government seal. This was the lede on a Page 1 report that I produced in May 1994:

Edmond claimed victory Wednesday in a two-year fight over a Christian cross on its city seal, as a federal judge ruled the symbol neither advances nor inhibits religion.

U.S. District Judge David L. Russell declared the seal, adopted in 1965, depicts Edmond's history and heritage.

He ruled the seal does not promote Christianity as an official religion, as argued by the American Civil Liberties Union.

The judge's decision, ending a 1 1/2 -day trial in Oklahoma City federal court, drew praise from city attorneys and an immediate promise of appeal from two of five plaintiffs who sought removal of the cross.

More than a year later, a federal appeals court overturned that decision and ruled the seal unconstitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to intervene, letting the appeals court ruling stand. By the time the court fight finally ended, I had written dozens of stories on the issue and moved on to a new beat covering inner-city Oklahoma City public schools.

All these years later, however, I still can't resist stories that involve church-state clashes, which is why a Page 1 story in today's Indianapolis Star caught my attention.

The headline:

Cross vs. Constitution: Symbol of faith brings Dugger, Indiana community to arms

(Best I can tell from reading the Star report, nobody in town is actually taking up arms over the dispute, but folks are pretty fired up.)

The top of the story:

DUGGER, Ind. — Head west on Route 54 through the heart of this small Southwestern Indiana town, and you’ll come upon a sign for the Church of Christ.

Keep driving along this 1-mile stretch, and you will see the Dugger First Baptist Church on the left, along with another sign, for First Christian Church. A few blocks farther, on the right, is a sign for Bible Baptist Church. Back on the left is an advertisement for a Christian radio station, 88.7 FM.

Go past Hicum Street, and you happen upon Whosoever Will Full Gospel Church — today’s advertised Bible verse is Psalms 147:8. Then, at Johnson Street, there’s a little sign on the ground pointing right, towards Cass Church.

But it’s just a little farther down Route 54 — right there behind the right field fence at the Union High School Bulldogs’ baseball field — where you find the most visible display of faith in town and the sudden source of more than a little angst.

It’s a cross — 26 feet tall, white with red lettering, all caps in a serif font. Those letters spell out “Jesus saves.”

That's terrific, colorful writing that makes me want to keep reading. A quick aside: The lede does make me curious about exactly what Psalm 147:8 says. If it's worth citing a specific verse, why not quote it? (Yes, I realize that trees are in short supply, especially for modern-day newspapers.)

As the story continues, the point of contention becomes clear: The cross is on public property. Americans United for Separation of Church and State wants it removed. The Star provides details on the group's objections and then adds:

All this amounts to what is no less grave than a violation of the United States Constitution — the Establishment Clause, to be exact. The letter’s writers quoted founding father James Madison to make their point.

The town of Dugger doesn’t have the cash to fight this in court, said Council President Dwight Nielson. Nor would it likely win.

Nielson plans to comply with the letter, though exactly how is unclear at the moment.

Another quick aside: Am I the only one curious as to what Mr. Madison said? If you're going to bring up his name in the story, why not quote him? (Please don't tell me you're going to bring up that tree thing again ...)

My other question about that short section of the story concerns the "Nor would it likely win" reference. Who is the source on that statement? Did Nielson say it? Did Barry Lynn with Americans United for Separation of Church and State say it? Did the reporter come to that conclusion based on his own research?

But overall, this is an extremely compelling, nicely done daily news story.

I like the conversational tone. I like the fairness afforded to both sides. I like the context on Americans United's statewide and national advocacy in this area. I like the specific details from what sounds like a colorful town. I like that the Star sent a reporter to town to get the scoop.

You don't get details like these over the phone:

When word got around Tuesday that an Indianapolis Star reporter was coming to town to write about the situation, more than 40 people showed up at the cross for the occasion. They brought white tents and water bottles. One girl wore a shirt that said “Better saved than sorry.”

They held hands and formed a prayer circle around the cross. “We’re asking you, Father God, for a voice from heaven, Father, to know if this is a time to stand and fight, Father God,” said the first man to speak, Trevis Pinkston. “Father God, we need to know now, Father God.” His speech was met with a rousing “Amen.”

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