EFFINGHAM — Effingham quarterback Nathan Shackelford took heart from the inspirational mural painted near the gates to Klosterman Field prior to the start of the 2019-20 football season.

“I thought it was a great representation of our town and our community,” said Shackelford, who will play at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville next season.

A central part of the mural was a depiction of The Cross at the Crossroads. City officials quietly had that image removed this week from the wall alongside the Raney Street overpass that is owned by the city.

Several residents during a crowded city council meeting in January asked that the depiction remain. By Wednesday morning, however, the cross had been painted over.

City officials offered a carefully worded explanation in the form of a press release:

“While each City official might find the mural to be an attractive and accurate representation of the City, the Council wants to emphasize that the City of Effingham is an inclusive and welcoming City where broad and diverse viewpoints are accepted and respected,” said the statement. “The last thing the City Council wants is for any members of our community to feel excluded or treated as second-class citizens because they hold a minority belief. It is in service to these principles that the City Council has altered the mural accordingly.”

Effingham Mayor Mike Schutzbach could not be reached for comment, despite several attempts by phone and email.

The controversy began when Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation wrote Schutzbach on Dec. 18, saying a local resident had complained that a religious symbol is part of the mural on city property.

Effingham Commissioner Merv Gillenwater said City Administrator Steve Miller talked to each commissioner, the mural’s artist, Jaime Stang-Ellis, City Attorney Tracy Willenborg and the Freedom From Religion Foundation before the city officials decided to remove the cross.

Gillenwater said if the city had known that Stang-Ellis planned to include the cross in the mural, officials would not have approved it.

“We could have stopped it at the beginning,” Gillenwater said.

“This has been a lengthy discussion,” Gillenwater said. “We have to be very careful because there are legal issues on both sides. I think we did a good job reaching a conclusion that I hope the citizens understand our position.”

Hearts Coach Brett Hefner, like his most recent quarterback, always liked the mural.

“There’s people above me and above all of us that make that decision on whether or not it’s appropriate,” Hefner said. “What’s public and school owned versus private. Whatever they decided was their choice and their decision. I know a lot of work had gone into that. The mural in general looks outstanding and is a nice touch, I think, for fans.”

It was a special mural for what went on to be quite the special team. The Flaming Hearts went 11-2 this season – the most successful record in the school’s history – and advanced to the IHSA Class 4A State Semifinal.

Shackelford called the mural something to be proud of as he passed by it every day with his teammates.

“When I first saw it I loved it,” Shackelford said. “...Walking through the tunnel, I thought it was special because it was something unique to our town and school ... It was a really special thing for us and our community to have and cherish. That mural was put up the year our football team had been the farthest we had ever been.”

“This season is automatically connected to that mural and was almost like it was meant to be put there and that this season was meant to be and they were meant to be together,” he added. “It was definitely special.”

Gillenwater understands the frustration, but said the city had no other choice.

“We could pick a side and stand up for either position,” Gillenwater said. “And the other group would say we can take you to court. We could spend a lot of years in court. Spend a lot of city money and still not make somebody happy. We had to do what we felt was the right thing to do. And not end up in court.”

Charles Mills can be reached at charles.mills@effinghamdailynews.com or by phone at 217-347-7151 ext. 126.

Charles Mills can be reached at charles.mills@effinghamdailynews.com or by phone at 217-347-7151 ext. 126.

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Charles Mills is reporter and videographer for the Effingham Daily News. A 1983 graduate of Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, he worked as senior video editor for a Nashville television station. He is a native of Vandalia.