7th Circuit Hears Arguments Over Evansville Crosses

Written by Don Byrd
The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments yesterday in the challenge to roadside crosses at the popular riverfront in Evansville, Indiana. The city allows private organizations to apply to use the space to publicize events, but plaintiffs argue that approval of the Christian display, which consisted of 31 6-foot crosses, violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment by giving the appearance of a government endorsement of Christianity.

The Evansville Courier & Press reports on the arguments between the church – which believes the freedom of speech requires the city to treat religious displays the same as non-religious displays – and the plaintiffs, who counter that religious displays are different and require scrutiny to ensure the appearance of religious endorsement by government is avoided.

Private speech does not violate the establishment clause, when it is made in an open, for-speech forum that is approved through the same process as other forms of speech,” Beauman said. “Christians have the same First Amendment rights as every other American. Religion can’t be singled out for censorship simple because it’s religious speech. The First Amendment protects all types of speech, religious or non-religious or debates among the religious. It’s all protected.”

“We are talking about 31 crosses in an area that virtually has no history of anything similar,” Rose said. “There are a long line of cases that when the free speech clause and establishment clause conflict that the establishment clause wins. Government has a compelling reason to avoid the appearance of endorsing a religion even if that means not letting a private speaker use that forum.”

The court could render a significant decision about the interaction between the freedom of speech and the Establishment Clause, or it could dismiss the church’s appeal for lack of standing, since the City of Evansville chose not to appeal the district court’s previous ruling halting the crosses. Stay tuned.