Texas city hatches real estate deal with church to cross out atheists' lawsuit

A $100 real estate deal may have ended a potential constitutional crisis in a small Texas city.

An atheist group sued Port Neches last fall over a 10-foot cement cross that stood in a public park for more than 45 years, saying its presence on public land violated the First Amendment's establishment clause. But the city short-circuited the lawsuit by selling the 400-square-foot plot where the cross stands to a local church.

“We found a section in the local government code that allows the sale of property to a religious organization, as long as that organization owns land within the municipality and there’s an agreement to revitalize that land,” Port Neches City Attorney Lance Bradley told 12News Now.

The Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation raised the issue last November, after it said it received a complaint from an unidentified citizen of the community of 13,000 near the East Texas city of Beaumont.

“The government’s permanent display of a Latin cross on public land is unconstitutional,” the group wrote in a letter to Port Neches Mayor Glenn Johnson. “The display of this patently religious symbol on public property confers government endorsement of Christianity, a blatant violation of the Establishment Clause.”

The organization demanded the removal of the cross, sparking a backlash from area residents buoyed by a defiant Johnson.

“I want to make it perfectly clear to the citizens of Port Neches specifically that this mayor and this city council will not fold, it will not bend, it will not roll over,” Johnson told reporters. “We’re going to fight this all the way. And if it goes to court, then it goes to court. And we’ll fight it there as well.”

But the sale of the cross and the land on which it stands to First United Methodist Church of Port Neches seems to have satisfied all parties.

“We looked at a number of options and this is the direction that city council decided to proceed,” City Manager Andre Wimer told ChristianNews.net.

FFRF called the sale a “victory,” but expressed skepticism about the price.

“The action to remove the Christian symbol from the public park is certainly a step in the right direction,” attorney Rebecca Markert told local television station KDFM. “FFRF will be looking into the details of the land sale to ensure the law was followed. If it is determined that the sale did not go through the proper process and the purpose was to save a religious symbol, then it’s not a closed case.”