INDIANAPOLIS — Federal appellate judges balanced on a constitutional knife edge Tuesday as they heard an argument over a church's plan to display dozens of 6-foot tall crosses on public land along Evansville's riverfront
The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago listened to arguments about West Side Christian Church's appeal of an order issued by a federal judge in Indianapolis that held the display would be an unconstitutional endorsement of religion by the city.
West Side has maintained throughout the case that the real issue was freedom of speech.
Nancy Tarsitano Drake was one of two Evansville-area residents who wanted to stop the two-week display because they "feel strongly that the city should not endorse or advance any religious viewpoint or religion in general."
Drake, who attended the hearing, said in a phone interview that the cross was an unmistakable symbol of Christianity. "There is no one on this earth who does not recognize it. It is a magnificent symbol," she said.
Bryan Beauman, the lawyer representing West Side, said after the hearing that he thought the arguments had gone well but there was no way to tell how the court might rule.
The Board of Public Works in the southwest Indiana city of about 115,000 people gave West Side Christian Church permission for the display in June. The 31 plain, polyethylene crosses were to be decorated by children from the church's vacation Bible school and displayed along the riverfront walkway on public land that abuts one of the city's major thoroughfares.
But the two residents sued with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana, asking a federal judge in Indianapolis to stop the display before it began because, they said, it would violate the constitutional separation of church and state.
The church's proposal was scuttled by an injunction issued by a Judge Sarah Evans Barker on July 31, four days before the display was to go up. The crosses were later set up in the parking lot of an old factory.
The church then asked the appellate court to overturn Barker's order in case it wants to try again to put up the display. The ACLU wants Barker's ruling to stand. The city of Evansville, which was named in the original suit, chose not to appeal the ruling.
In a 2009 case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that officials in Pleasant Grove City, Utah, could allow a private group to set up a Ten Commandments monument on public property, while turning down another group's request to erect a display that included seven extra commandments.
But in a 1995 case, the justices ruled that the state of Ohio should not have sought to bar the Ku Klux Klan from displaying a Christian cross in a public park adjacent to the state Capitol in Columbus during the 1993 Christmas season.