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Group protests 'illegal' display of Easter crosses in Ohio village

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FILE: April 7, 2014: Two crosses are displayed on the side of the Village Municipal Building in Stratton, Ohio. The Madison, Wis.-based Freedom From Religion Foundation is challenging the claim by Stratton Mayor John Abdalla that it's constitutional to display the crosses during holidays. (AP Photo/Steubenville Herald-Star, Mark J. Miller)

A group advocating the separation of church and state is protesting a pair of crosses displayed for Easter on a tiny eastern Ohio village's municipal building.

The Madison, Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation has challenged the claim by the mayor of Stratton that it's constitutional to display the crosses during holidays.

Mayor John Abdalla temporarily removed the crosses in January after the foundation threatened to sue, but he returned them to celebrate the Easter season. One is Latin, the other Eastern Orthodox.

Abdalla told the Steubenville Herald-Star that such seasonal displays were allowed. The mayor declined to comment when contacted Wednesday by The Associated Press, including saying whether the crosses still adorned the building's facade.

He told the newspaper he planned to remove them at the end of April. Easter is this Sunday.

In an April 8 letter, the foundation said religious displays on public buildings represent a violation of the First Amendment regardless of what time of year it is.

"While the permanent display of these crosses by the Village is indisputably unconstitutional, the seasonal display of the crosses in recognition of Easter, the Christian celebration of Jesus's resurrection, is no less illegal," staff attorney Rebecca Markert wrote. "The display of these crosses is illegal because it represents government endorsement of the Christian religion."

The foundation said this week that the village hasn't replied to its letter, which requested that the village remove the display.

Abdalla said he didn't want to discuss the matter nor could he suggest anyone who would. "No one's going to talk about this," he said.

It's not the first debate over religious freedom in the village.

In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with the Watchtower Society in a lawsuit challenging a Stratton ordinance that imposed registration requirements and penalties on house-to-house solicitation. Justices ruled the law violated the First Amendment of Jehovah's Witnesses who wished to distribute religious pamphlets door-to-door in the village.

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