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Evansville, ACLU at odds over cross display

– An American Civil Liberties Union lawyer tried to convince a federal judge Thursday that allowing 30 crosses to be set up on public property along the Ohio River would violate the Constitution. But an attorney for the city that approved the display said barring the display would tread on free speech.

The crosses are set to go on display Aug. 4 along Evansville’s popular Riverwalk. Judge Sarah Evans Barker acknowledged the issue was complicated.

She has about two weeks to make a ruling.

Barker repeatedly questioned both sides about whether the area had ever been used for public demonstrations before, and what criteria the city’s Board of Works used when it decided last month to allow a group of local churches to display the 6-foot polyethylene crosses. The crosses will be decorated by vacation bible school students.

The ACLU represents two Evansville residents who live near the riverfront and want to block the two-week display.

ACLU attorney Gavin Rose said anyone seeing the display would naturally assume the city was endorsing Christianity, and he said the Riverwalk has not been used for other demonstrations in the past.

The city’s attorney disputed that claim. Keith Vonderale argued that officials have never turned down a request to use the Riverwalk for purposes of free speech. He said the area had been used by groups ranging from churches and Shriners to a candlelight vigil for Trayvon Martin.

Barker asked whether any of those demonstrations had lasted as long as the proposed cross display. He responded: “There have been no two-week prayer vigils.”

Rose said the city had never allowed such a large, unattended display as the crosses, which he said would stretch four city blocks. The fact that the display would be unattended was one of the issues, he said.

The city’s Board of Works has no written policy governing public demonstrations on the property, and the lawyers said that decision was up to the board’s discretion. Vonderale said safety and liability were the main factors in that decision, along with legal advice.