Cross in Harris County park draws criticism

The 12-foot cross erected in Spring Creek Park in Tomball has sparked debate

By Mike Morris in the Houston Chronicle
December 24, 2012

Just in time for Christmas, a 12-foot cross in a north Harris County park has sparked a debate over the separation of church and state.

The monument stands near the back of Spring Creek Park, near the Montgomery County line in Commissioner Jack Cagle’s Precinct 4. The precinct received an anonymous email complaint about the cross earlier this year, followed in August by a letter from Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group.

“Because the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits government bodies from promoting religion on public land, we request that the City (sic) promptly remove the cross,” the letter stated. “If a private entity is willing to accept ownership of the cross, the cross could then be constitutionally displayed on that entity’s private property.”

The letter cited precedent saying that governments cannot take actions that have “the purpose or effect of ‘endorsing’ religion.” One of the cases cited was a 1983 ruling that former Precinct 3 Commissioner Bob Eckels needed to remove three crosses and a Star of David from Bear Creek Pioneers Park after the Greater Houston Chapter of the ACLU alleged their presence violated the Establishment Clause. The crosses and star later were removed when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear Eckels’ appeal.

As for the cross in Spring Creek Park, the County Attorney’s Office responded in a letter last week , saying its lawyers do not believe the cross violates the Constitution. The cross was placed in the late 1970s to commemorate graves in the park where slaves or freed slaves are buried, the letter stated.

Robert Soard, chief of staff in the County Attorney’s Office, said the issue is whether the purpose of the cross’ placement is religious in nature. He said in this case it is not.

2003 courthouse case

“If the cross is there to commemorate a grave or a cemetery or even to commemorate an historical event, then it is not a religious symbol,” he said.

The county made a similar argument in 2003 when a resident sued to have a monument displaying a Bible removed from the sidewalk in front of the Harris County civil courthouse. The monument was placed there in 1956 by the Star of Hope mission to honor a benefactor. A district judge later led an effort to refurbish the monument, which included adding neon lights to outline the Bible.

A Houston federal judge ruled that by making the Bible more prominent, the refurbishment changed the monument’s secular purpose of honoring a person into an unconstitutional religious display. A federal appeals court declared the case moot after the county removed the Bible.

Cagle said the cross in Spring Creek Park is an important historical marker and appears to have been placed around the same time as markers in the park commemorating those who died in an explosion at a nearby Confederate powder mill.

“It’s an important part of our park and it’s important that we preserve that history and keep it in remembrance of those the monument was designed to honor,” Cagle said. “I don’t believe we have adequate signage on it showing what it was installed for. That’s something I’d like to do in the future.”

Alex Luchenitser, associate legal director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, declined to comment on the county’s interpretation of the situation.

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