The mayor of Whiteville, Tenn. said his community is under attack from a national atheist organization that is threatening to sue unless they remove a cross atop the town’s water tower.
“They are terrorists as far as I’m concerned,” said Mayor James Bellar about the Freedom From Religion Foundation. “They are alleging that some Whiteville resident feels very, very intimidated by this cross.”
The mayor told Fox News Radio that the cross was erected on the town’s water tower about eight years ago by a private group of citizens. They collected private donations to cover the costs.
It’s just a cross on the water tower,” he said. “All we’re doing is exercising our right to practice our beliefs down here but this organization is now going to stymie that. We’re not out here knocking on doors trying to convert people.”
But the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation said the cross is a violation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. They’ve given the mayor until the end of October to remove the cross. If he refuses, they have threatened to sue.
“The law is very clear on this,” Freedom From Religion Foundation co-president Dan Barker told Fox News Radio. “A secular city may not promote or hinder religion. We don’t have a problem with believers putting up crosses wherever they want, but this is a cross put up by the city on the city water tower.”
Barker said they’ve been sending letters to the city since last year demanding that the cross be taken down, acting on behalf of an unnamed resident who complained.
“It offends many residents,” Barker said of the cross. “Many of them think the cross symbol is an offensive symbol – that it’s an insult to humanity.”
But Mayor Bellar said he doesn’t believe that’s true.
“As a matter of fact, I don’t even think it’s a Whiteville resident,” he said. “We don’t have people of that belief here and if we do they’re not going to raise that kind of ruckus for the rest of the town.”
Mayor Bellar said he’s inclined to remove the cross rather than face a costly lawsuit.
However, the town council voted to consult with the Alliance Defense Fund about their legal options.
“This is their cause in life – to ride up and down the highway and find small towns that maybe have a religious symbol somewhere on public property,” he said. “I have to admit it – checking their website, they’re batting 100 percent on this stuff.”
The Jackson Sun editorialized about the controversy, asking the town to remove the cross.
“To our fellow Christians who may disagree, we issue a respectful challenge borrowed from a local church youth production: God doesn't call governments to be Christians, he calls Christians to be Christians,” the newspaper wrote. “The government is not the instrument to spread God's word. We are.”
The mayor said the atheist group’s demands are “very frustrating” calling it a sad state of affairs.
“A terrorist is more than a guy that flies the planes into the building,” he said. “It’s anyone who can disrupt your way of living, destroy your lifestyle, cause you anxiety. It’s more than killing people. If they can disrupt your routine in life, that’s what they want to do. They are terrorists as far as I’m concerned.”
Barker said he found the comparison to be ironic.
“He’s the one breaking the law,” Barker said. “He’s the one who is anti-American, who is against diversity, against religious freedom and yet because we complain – and point out the fact that he’s breaking the law – he calls us the terrorist.”
He said it would be unwise for the town of Whiteville to defy their demands.
“Bring it on,” Barker told Fox News Radio. “If they’re going to fight it, they will lose this case.”
Todd Starnes is host of Fox News & Commentary and the author of "Dispatches from Bitter America: A Gun Toting, Chicken Eating Son of a Baptist's Culture War Stories."