Recently a resident from the town of Roberts, Idaho objected to the fact that the city’s water tower was adorned with Christian crosses. Joe Cohea, a local resident who lived right next door to the water tower, took his concerns to City Hall and to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), claiming that religious symbols should not be placed on city-owned property.
Some might argue that a cross on a water tower is no big deal, and that such religious sentiments don’t necessarily offend anyone. But Joe Cohea is right in his claim that religious symbols should not be displayed on public property. He argues that Christianity is not representative of his town since Roberts has many different cultures and faiths, and that the cross creates the perception of government endorsement of Christianity.
“My opinion is no kind of religious symbol belongs on city property, period,” Cohea told KIDK-TV.
In response to his claim, Mayor Robert Berlin stated that anyone can put religious or cultural symbols up on the water tower, as long as it's not derogatory. The city agreed that the population is certainly diverse, but Mayor Berlin said that Roberts has always been welcoming to everyone, regardless of religious of cultural viewpoints.
"We have many different cultures and faiths, especially for a town our size," said Berlin. "Joe mentioned Buddhists, Hindus, Native Americans, Jews ... and he's right."
While the mayor claims that people of different faiths can put up their religious symbols, one could expect a lot of backlash against, for example, pagan symbols. It would be best to completely avoid such religious symbolism on public property, so as to avoid the impression of promoting one faith over another.
The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment also states that the state must not promote or inhibit religion, and that a particular religion must not be given preferential treatment.
For now, the crosses have been replaced by American flags. Cohea claims that he will go after the crosses if they are posted again. He also plans to make a complaint to the ACLU when a Nativity scene that is displayed each year in the city park re-emerges next Christmas.
A couple of years back, a similar incident occurred in Whiteville, Tennessee. A secular group protested the placement of a Christian cross on the city’s water tower. According to Annie Laurie Gaylor, president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the Christian display could send a message to non-Christians that they are not welcome.
The main problem with such religious displays is that they symbolize moving away from separation of church and state, and suggest government promotion of religion. The state should neither endorse nor prohibit religion — it should remain a personal issue.