The City of Ozark in southwest Missouri is embroiled in controversy after receiving a letter from the legal department of Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF). The letter concerns a illuminated cross on city property.
Ozark’s cross is the size of a telephone poll and stands in Findley River Park. The cross has been a permanent fixture in the park for years and is normally lit at night during the Christmas season as part of a holiday drive-through light display.
The FFRF has successfully sued municipalities around the nation to force the removal religious displays from publicly funded places. It advocates for a debatable interpretation of First Amendment separation of church and state through which they regularly demand that religion displays in publicly funded places be taken down, while advocating for secular displays that promote religion-free expression.
Some observers would argue that the FFRF promotes atheism as a religion or as some call it, the religion of anti-religion.
With the threat a costly lawsuit by the FFRF, Ozark city officials initially turned off the lights on the cross at night and made plans to remove it altogether, issuing the following initial statement on Facebook:
“While we respect the interests of those who have long enjoyed the holiday display at Finley River Park, we must acknowledge the Federal Constitution and its interpretation by the U.S. Supreme Court…This letter has brought a concern to our attention and we cannot ignore the First Amendment which…prohibits the government from making laws or taking actions that may promote or prohibit one religion over another.,” the letter stated. “It is the position of the City of Ozark that leaving a religious symbol on public property, in this case a cross, will result in a law suit that we will not win as the other communities throughout the U.S. and our own region have tried this and lost.”
There’s no indication if the city will be successful in defending the cross in court should it come to that. Among FFRF’s legal victories are the first federal lawsuit against government funding of faith-based agencies; overturning a state Good Friday holiday; blocking taxpayer subsidies of religious schools; removing Ten Commandments monuments and crosses from public lands; ending 51 years of Bible instruction in public schools and halting a government chaplaincy program for state workers.
After a strong public backlash of phone calls and Facebook comments in support of the cross, the City of Ozark reversed their position on December 11 with the following statement:
“We released a press release earlier with the facts as they have been presented to us thus far. As the day unfolded and citizens commented on this topic, we have determined that in the best interest of all parties we shall continue working through the legalities of the situation. Therefore, the cross in the Finley River Park will remain in place until a further due diligence can be completed regarding this matter.”