A group that advocates for the separation of church and state wants the City of Effingham to remove a cross from a mural on city-owned property – generating backlash in the community and spurring a demonstration in support of the artwork scheduled for Saturday.
The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter Dec. 18 to Mayor Mike Schutzbach, saying that a resident of this area had contacted the group about the mural on the Raney Street overpass, near the Effingham High School football field. It’s located along the path between EHS campus and the school’s sports complex, which is on city property.
The painting shows an American flag and white Latin cross with light emanating from it. It is obviously a depiction of the Cross at the Crossroads, which has loomed over Effingham along the interstate since 2001 and is supported by a faith-based organization that repreresents many different denominations.
Effingham City Administrator Steve Miller said the city is reviewing the matter. Schutzbach didn’t respond on Thursday to a request for comment.
“We have been researching the legal aspect of the matter and want to consult with the City Council before we make any statements,” said Miller. “We are reviewing the matter internally.”
The mural was created by local artist Jamie Stang-Ellis of Stang Arts. She also could not be reached for comment.
However, community members are rallying behind the artist and the mural with an online petition titled, “Let the Cross Stay,” which can be found on Change.org.
Effingham native Jarrett Jones stated on his petition that “the cross has been a symbol for Effingham as long as I can remember. It represents the people of Effingham and should be left up to show our pride of the city.”
As of Thursday evening more than 14,000 had signed.
Also, planned from noon to 3 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 4, at Effingham City Hall, is a public event called, “Standing Up for Jesus,” hosted by Edgewood, IL Flag Fliers. Details can be found on Facebook events.
The City Council meets next at 5 p.m. Jan. 7, and Miller said already there has been interest shown to speak on this topic, likely during the public participation portion of the meeting. There are no action items on the agenda related to the mural or the request from FFRF.
Bryan Newswander, lead pastor at Effingham Assembly, was viewing the mural on Thursday to see for himself what the issue was all about.
“Religious freedom is very important,” said Newswander. “And the protection of that for anyone who wants to believe – or not believe – is also important.”
Newswander said the local artist presented an accurate depiction of what one would see across they way, if Raney Street overpass wasn’t there, meaning the large flag and The Cross, placed on private land.
“I understand that people have pulled speaker’s cards and we anticipate the topic may be discussed at the Jan. 7 City Council meeting,” said Miller.
Dante Harootunian, an attorney for the advocacy group, said that it is the foundation’s policy “to keep the complainants anonymous to protect their identities, since many of our complainants fear retribution by the community if they are outed.”
He added that the foundation wants the cross removed from the mural, based on the First Amendment that prohibits the government from promoting or endorsing any religion. But it didn’t specify a time frame in which to do so, stating the city should reply at its earliest convenience detailing the steps it will take to “remedy this violation.”
Harootunian said the city has not yet responded to the FFRF request.
“The FFRF has had several successes in recent years getting crosses and other religious displays removed from the public property,” said Harootunian.
One successful example he cited was in a courthouse in North Carolina, where a large painting had been installed at the Cleveland County Courthouse depicting a Latin cross and an ichthys, also known as the Jesus fish symbol. The artwork had been donated by a church.
“Before any action is taken I hope the city explores what rights that they have,” said Newswander. “It is a tough balance that they need to find.”
The local pastor stressed that the cross is the symbol of the Effingham community – and more.
“I believe that the cross is also the greatest hope for mankind,” said Newswander. “My hope is that it stays.”