In the glory days of my
pre-adolescent youth, nothing was more anticipated, more cherished, than
summertime. Three months of unfettered
freedom, where neighborhood kids played outside all day, leaving the front
porch in the morning and not returning until the street lights came on. We rode double on our bikes, swung on
homemade swings, built forts and climbed trees. I wore hand me down shorts and
t-shirts and Ked sneakers, drank out of the garden hose and spent hours at the
community pool. I wished it could last
But there was something I was required to do
–attend vacation bible school. Despite
the most cogent and concise objections an 8 year old could espouse, (it was
summertime after all!) I was overruled
by parental mandate. How difficult it
was to spend two weeks in a little classroom, while the outdoors beckoned.
Sitting on hard wooden chairs, I could hear the distant tantalizing chime of
the ice cream truck, and day dreamed of finally jumping off the high dive.
I must admit however, I did enjoy the daily
respite of Kool-Aid and cookies, outdoor games (I particularly favored Red
Rover) and the occasional art projects. Our depictions of biblical scenes such as
Noah’s Ark were constructed primarily of “found” materials, scavenged from the
church kitchen or office; paper plates, string, water colors, colored pencils
and pop cycle sticks. The challenge was to use what was available. Our pictures and collages were sometimes held
together with yucky tasting paste (yes I tasted it and I know you did too) then
proudly tacked on the church gigantic bulletin board or taped to the cement
block walls of the fellowship hall.
I hadn’t waxed nostalgia about the
VCB of my youth in decades, (perhaps never at all, I mean come on, let’s face
it I never knew one kid, that ever wanted to spend their summer in school of
any kind! ) However, the recent legal controversy of the
Riverfront crosses revived those memories.
Initially, I was tad bit envious reading in the Courier Press that
today’s vacation bible school kids got to decorate statues which were exhibited
for public view–wow! No construction
paper and crayons for them.
And so I followed the crosses
articles, the evolution of this story and its players is fairly amazing. (No pun intended, really) I also expanded my reading horizons, scoured
other articles on line, and the thousands of postings – I think it was a record
amount. I never realized how much Evansvillians cared about vacation bible
school art projects!! Vitriolic exchanges between anonymous posters, heated
discussions at work, it has been a hotly debated subject.
So once the ACLU filed a lawsuit in federal court on behalf of Evansville
citizens claiming the city’s approval of the cross display public property
violated the First Amendment guarantee against government established religion,
my interest was really piqued. I dug a little deeper, read everything I could
find. Will Rogers said: “All I know is what I read in the papers.” But I’m pretty sure he was being just a tad
sarcastic. Everything I came to know was not in the papers. At least, not at
I learned through public records,
that on April 30, 2013, Mike Day, a
salesman for a company called Plastic-I-Like, submitted a standardized form to
the city engineer, Kerry Kemp, seeking city approval of a display of life size
crosses on the riverfront public walkway. Day’s application simply stated that these big
crosses would “be decorated by area churches to reflect their faith messages.” No
mention of any specific churches, or vacation bible school, or children’s
artwork. That comes later. Still, very
curious as to why a salesman of a plastic molding business would make this
request. Photos accompanying the application depicted a life sized brown cross with the white lettering
Per standard procedure, the city engineer
Kerry Kemp forwards Day’s application to the City attorney, Ted Ziemer, who didn’t just review the application
for legal issues, he actually has a meeting with Mr. Day, AND a member West
Side Christian church named Roger Lehman
AND the church’s attorney Chris Wisher. After this meeting, Zimmer then writes an
email to city engineer Kemp, on June 6, 2013, coincidentally the morning of the
weekly meeting of the Board of Public Works. This Board is a governmental body
consisting of three mayoral appointees, whose charge is to approve permit
requests. Ziemer opines in this email that
the crosses, sans the “Jesus Saves “ or any other writing, were statues, and therefore it was
appropriate for the city to allow the
display, a position he appears to advocate to the Board and to the public. In this email, he also states that the
Administration had no objection to the display. Indeed, the mayor’s chief of
staff was copied on said email. Ziemer likens the crosses to “statues placed on
the riverfront by the United Way in years past.” .
Later, Board President Bill Nix states in his deposition taken in the
ACLU lawsuit, that the Board relies heavily on the city attorney’s opinion in
making its determination whether to approve a permit request.
Merriam Webster Dictionary defines
statue as: “a three-dimensional work of
art, as a representational or abstract form, carved in stone or wood, molded in
a plastic material, cast in bronze, or the like.”
Day’s permit application was not on
the Board’s agenda for June 6, 2013. It
was brought up as an “oh by the way” item under Other Business, by city
engineer Kemp. Day is present at the
meeting, he comes forward as the applicant, telling the Board he’s with the
company Plastic-I-Like. He fails to mention the actual applicants for the
permit was a conglomeration of Christian based churches, until pressed, and
then simply states “its churches and such.”
Day is told to go home and the church representatives should appear to
make the application. At a later Board
meeting on June 20, 2013, Roger Lehman, with whom Ziemer had discussed the permit
with prior to the first meeting, is an elder at the West Side Christian Church and
former city-county building commissioner, appears and tells the Board “were ’re doing it on behalf
of the community. We will feel like it will bring people to the riverfront who
wouldn’t otherwise come.” He further stated
that the crosses will be decorated by children attending a vacation Bible
school camp at West Side Christian Church.
The proposed display is substantive. Comprised of 31 six foot crosses, each
anchored to 44” concrete ballast and
spaced every 15 feet, it will occupy over
455’ of the riverfront walkway for two weeks.
(Those kids have a lot of work to do!) It is approved by the Board on
June 20th after Lehman speaks. One of
the board members even suggests to Lehman that he should alert the media to
generate publicity about the cross display.
Ziemer, Kemp and Day did not attend the June 20th meeting.
After the lawsuit against the City had been
filed by the ACLU on behalf of two Evansville citizens objecting to display of
crosses on public property as a violation of their First Amendment Rights,
Lehman was quoted in the Courier Press "I took it (the cross display) on
because of my feeling of duty to God and church, doing what we're called to do."
Other churches and organizations have since
joined West Side Christian Church in what Lehman described as "a Tri-State
ecumenical effort." In fact, those religious
organizations have now filed a Motion to Intervene in the lawsuit requesting
the federal court to include them as interested parties, admitting that the
display named Cross the River was a “planned event conducted by a group of
churches and other religious organizations.” (emphasis added) They allege, for the first time, in their
pleadings that the display of the crosses is private
religious speech and thus protected by the First Amendment.
Wait a minute, weren’t the crosses
merely tourist attraction statues decorated by vacation bible school kids?
the River, as described by the churches in their pleadings with the court,
is an event. The word “event”
connotes an occurrence - and this happening was clearly intended from its inception to be a vehicle
for the expression of religious views. Not,
as originally represented to the public, a
vacation bible school art project calculated to draw visitors to the Riverfront.
From all appearances, Cross the River was a done deal before
it ever was presented to the very Board charged to determine whether it should
be allowed. Public open meetings of government agencies are not supposed to be
rubber stamp of “events” previously sanctioned by other
government employees. Not supposed to be is the operative phrase.
the federal court will decide whether Cross
the River is protected private religious speech, or a violation of the Establishment
clause of the First Amendment. It may take a long time, maybe years, before
this issue is finally decided. But we’ll
wait, because as Americans, that’s what we get to do, question governmental
authority and assert our Constitutional rights
But let’s not be coy about it. It isn’t
becoming, as my mother would say, more importantly, it’s not what taxpayers pay
our government employees to do. And please, can we just keep the kids out of
Times certainly have changed since
I was a child. Parents no longer allow
their kids to run around the neighborhood unsupervised, or ride a bike without
a helmet, and I’m pretty sure pools no longer have high dives and Red Rover
along with dodge ball has been banned from the playgrounds. Yet, some things haven’t changed: a child’s
love of summertime, ice cream trucks, and coloring. Children truly enjoy
freedom of expression, especially through their artwork. But children don’t even call it ‘art”, they
call it “playing”. They don’t intentionally and knowingly use their coloring
and drawing and finger painting as a method to present political or other
adult-like convictions. Their artistic
creations are at once sweetly simplistic and poignantly perceptive. As adults we are often in awe of their
interpretations of the world around them.
Let’s keep it that way.