We often tell visiting out-of-towners that they’ll know they’re in Effingham when they see the big cross at the side of the interstate. It’s a better signpost than any signpost. For many who live here, and those who visit, The Cross at the Crossroads represents Effingham.
There is an uproar over a mural on city property that depicts that symbol of our community. The painting alongside the Raney Street overpass shows an American flag and a white Latin cross with light emanating from it. It represents the cross that has loomed over Effingham since 2001 and is supported by a faith-based organization that represents many different denominations.
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 located along the path between the Effingham High School campus and the school’s sports complex. It asks that the cross be removed from the mural because the group believes it violates the constitutional separation of church and state.
A dozen people spoke at the city council meeting on Tuesday, urging officials to keep the cross on the mural. A petition at Change.org urging the same has collected more than 22,500 signatures in recent days.
“The city is of the opinion that the mural at issue does not constitute a violation of the establishment clause, as it constitutes purely private speech, having been placed by a private organization with a message that was not and has not been approved or adopted by the city,” City Attorney Tracy Willenborg said in a statement.
We agree, and think the mural should remain untouched. Not because of the religious connotations that a cross 198 feet tall naturally carries with it, but because we think it’s entirely appropriate for a mural depicting our community to include what is arguably the most recognizable feature of our community.
Still evaluating its options, the city council took no action on Tuesday.
Do we want to see the cross depicted at city hall? On city stationary? On the checks the city writes to vendors or on the tax bills it sends to residents? No. Of course not.
But as Willenborg said, this one instance is private speech that happens to be displayed on public property. We think government should play a role in encouraging free speech, and the mural is one example of that.
The artist is the talented Jamie Stang-Ellis, owner of Stang Arts Studio and Gallery in Effingham.
“The mural took many hours and the work lasted two months,” she told the council. “In 2019, I was hired and commissioned by the amazing EHS Football Moms with the goal of bringing life to the tunnel for the season ahead and for years to come. The idea was painting the landscape as what you’d see from the stands, but in a fun, creative way.”
We’re no art critics, but we think she succeeded.
In fact, we like the initiative Stang-Ellis took so much that we’d like to see more of it. The city should encourage even more speech regarding the way people in Effingham see themselves. We’re an increasingly diverse crowd, and surely others see symbols that represent us that go beyond the cross. What are they? The answers could open eyes — and a useful discussion about who we are.