Lawsuit threat means Alsip Christmas tradition gets crossed off
BY STEVE METSCH firstname.lastname@example.org November 19, 2012 9:40PM
Alsip Mayor Pat Kitching
Updated: December 21, 2012 6:15AM
To avoid what could be a costly lawsuit, the village of Alsip will break with tradition and not erect a cross on its water tower near the Tri-State Tollway this holiday season.
The cross had been a fixture since the 1970s, Mayor Patrick Kitching said Monday. But after the Freedom from Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., advised Kitching it would file a lawsuit demanding removal of the cross, citing separation of church and state, Kitching decided to not wage a losing and likely costly legal battle.
Freedom From Religion Foundation co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor said the group acted on a complaint received last year from an unidentified Alsip resident.
“We work to keep religion out of government. We try to resolve things through education and legislation, not litigation. Towns can’t put crosses on public structures such as water towers because we have separation between religion and government,” she said.
In a letter to residents and businesses, Kitching wrote: “I am very saddened by this and had hoped we would not have to change tradition. However, in these economic times, the village cannot afford to waste any tax dollars on a lawsuit that simply cannot be won.
“Other municipalities have been brought to suit regarding the very same issue and have lost. We have chosen not to waste taxpayer dollars to fight a losing battle in court.”
Contacted Monday at the village hall, Kitching said, “I know we can’t win. There’s no point in fighting it.”
He is offended by the outcome.
“I really am. It’s a tradition, and our tradition has been slapped down. They told me an anonymous person complained. I doubt that,” Kitching said. “I think they (foundation members) were driving down the tollway and saw our cross.”
The foundation sent Kitching a letter last year, asking that the lighted, 19-foot-tall cross not be erected. Kitching ignored their request “the best I could,” he said.
The Dec. 20, 2011, letter from the foundation’s attorney, Patrick Elliott, said the cross “demonstrates the village’s preference of Christianity over all other faiths, and impermissibly advances religion over nonreligion. Such a government endorsement of Christianity is unconstitutional.”
The letter cites similar court cases in Eugene, Ore.; St. Charles; and Starke, Fla.
“The government must stay out of the religion business,” the letter said. “Private individuals remain free to celebrate holidays as they see fit.”
Having a cross on the water tower would send a message of exclusion to non-Christians and nonbelievers, Gaylor said. He cited a recent study by the Pew Research Center that found 20 percent of Americans say they are not affiliated with any religion.
“That’s up from 15 percent five years ago,” she said.
She noted that the Founding Fathers refrained from making reference to God, Jesus Christ, the Bible and the Ten Commandments in the Constitution.
“It was deliberate,” she said.
The foundation, which began in 1978, has 1,700 members nationwide, about 700 in Illinois, Elliott said.
The mayor’s decision to not erect the cross this year “is the right course of action,” Elliott said.
Kitching said that since he became mayor in 2005, he never has received a complaint about the cross.
Alsip has a lighted star on its other water tower, “but nobody has complained about that,” Kitching said.
Derrick Hughes, a village resident and a trustee at Christ United Methodist Church of Alsip, said the mayor “should ignore the anti-religion group.”
“This is kind of silly. I could understand this if it was derogatory like a swastika or a burning cross,” said Hughes, 64, who served in the Air Force.
“This ticks me off. This is about taking more of our freedoms away. What happened to freedom of speech? My goodness,” he said.
Kitching said he finds it “amazing that we can have ‘In God we trust’ on our dollar bills, but we can’t have anything else to do with religion.
“Have you ever gone to Washington, D.C.? The name of God is on federal buildings,” he said.
Kitching has not heard from any churches in Alsip since the announcement was made. Former Mayor Arnie Andrews started the tradition in the 1970s, Kitching said.
The village plans to replace the cross with a lighted holiday tree on the water tower, Kitching said.
To avoid any potential problems, it will not be called a Christmas tree, he said.
“I thought about putting up a 30-foot Grinch, but I couldn’t find one,” Kitching said.