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Churches appeal ban on riverfront crosses

– A group of churches that wants to erect 6-foot tall crosses on Evansville’s public riverfront is appealing a federal judge’s order that permanently blocks the display.

The churches, led by West Side Christian Church, filed a notice of appeal Wednesday with the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago.

Attorney Christopher Wischer, who represents the churches, said the appeal will challenge the scope of federal Judge Sarah Evans Barker’s July 31 ruling barring the display.

“Those churches, at some point, would like to have their display on the riverfront as planned,” he told the Evansville Courier & Press. “Our belief is the district court injunction was in error, and we hope to have the 7th Circuit overturn that and allow the display to proceed.”

A decision is not expected to be handed down for several more months.

Evansville’s Board of Public Works gave West Side Christian Church approval in June to install a display of 31 6-foot tall crosses along the four blocks of the city’s downtown riverfront overlooking the Ohio River. The crosses were to have been decorated by vacation Bible school pupils for a display running from Aug. 4-18.

But two Evansville residents represented by the ACLU of Indiana challenged it on the grounds it would represent a government sponsorship of religion.

Wischer said the churches’ display was intended as “a private display in a public forum.” He argued that private religious speech is entitled to “the same protection of the Constitution as non-religious speech.”

ACLU attorney Gavin Rose said the group is confident Barker’s order banning the display will stand and that the display would violate the First Amendment by permitting a government sponsorship of religion.

“The legal test is whether a reasonable person looking at a public display would believe that display has been endorsed by or has received the seal of approval from the city itself,” he said. “I don’t know how anyone could possibly look at 30 crosses traversing a four-block span in the heart of Evansville and conclude anything other than the city supports, the city endorses this display.”