Freedom From Religion group sees victory in land, cross sale; will seek details

Published 4:07 pm Friday, May 20, 2016

PORT NECHES — The Freedom From Religious Foundation saw a victory when Port Neches city leaders agreed to sell a small plot of land containing a Christian cross but the issue isn’t over yet.

“We were made aware of the city’s decision to sell the land to the church last night (Thursday) and we think it is a positive development,” Rebecca Markert, staff attorney for FFRF, said via phone. “The city recognized that having a religious symbol on city owned property is unconstitutional.”

But the group also wants to investigate the issue because the sale of the land must meet certain criteria and parameters such as being subject to a bidding process and being sold at fair market value, she said.

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“FFRF calls the city council decision to divest itself of a religious symbol a victory for the separation of state and church, but it is concerned about details of the land sale,”Markert said in a press release. “It (FFRF) says that the issue needs to be investigated and monitored further. The low sale price raises concerns that the church was given preferential treatment and a close watch needs to be kept, the group says, on how the church’s plot will be differentiated from the adjacent taxpayer-funded park.”

If the sale was legally done, she said, then the next question is how will the plot of land be recognized as private property.

“There needs to be some sort of delineation whether a fence or signage or disclaimers,” she said.

Lance Bradley, an attorney representing the city, said the legal team went by local government code 253.010 when working on the issue.

The local government code refers to the sale of real property to certain nonprofit or religious organizations.

Several individuals had expressed interest in purchasing the land around the cross and after considering its options, the city decided to sell the property per the statute, he added.

FFRF also wants to make sure the reason for the sale of the land including the cross wasn’t for religious purposes.

“We don’t know the situation,” Markert said. “We do know the mayor (Glenn Johnson) went to great lengths to talk about how important the cross is to the community because of religiosity and that would indicate some motives behind the sale are not proper.”

FFRF is skeptical of the city’s motives with the sale, given that the community’s outcry against FFRF’s complaint was led by Mayor Johnson.

“He showed up at a rally held by supporters of the cross in November and spoke against FFRF’s ‘attack’ on ‘our cross,’ vowing, ‘we may lose … but I’m just telling you this: When we come out of the fight, (FFRF) will have two black eyes, a broken leg and a broken arm … and we may look worse, but they’ll know that they have been in a fight.”

On Thursday, Port Neches City Councilmembers approved the sale of a 20 foot X 20 foot piece of land that includes a 50-plus year old, 10-foot cross to First United Methodist Church for $100. Attorneys with the city said this is fair market value.

Johnny Coward, owner of Tri City Concrete Company, and Bob Bailey, of Bailey Masonry Inc., constructed the stone and mortar cross that was completed in March 1970.

The FFRF contacted Port Neches late last year asking the city to remove the cross, which is a symbol of Christianity, which is located in a public park.

The issue caught fire with local Christians who began constructing and distributing thousands of free “little white crosses.”

Mary Meaux: 721-2429

Twitter: @MaryMeauxPANews