McAlester religion-based sign artwork sparks conflict
BY JERRY FINK World Correspondent
Sunday, October 07, 2012
10/07/12 at 5:45 AM
McALESTER - Two nationally prominent organizations with often divergent opinions on the First Amendment of the Constitution may be at loggerheads over street signs in this Pittsburg county community.
The city of McAlester has sought the advice of the American Center for Law and Justice in Washington D.C. about whether its decision to take down several religious-oriented works of art that had been placed on downtown street signs was the legally proper thing to do.
The artwork, a number of metal silhouettes depicting scenes such as the crucifixion of Jesus and people worshipping at the cross, was removed after City Manager Paul Stasiak received a resident's complaint in July. Since then, even more complaints have been received - but the complaints are because the silhouettes were removed.
The ACLJ, a conservative organization founded by evangelist Pat Robertson in 1990, has attorneys that sometimes represent clients over religious rights issues. In this case it was asked by McAlester City Attorney Joe Ervin for an opinion in an effort to help clarify the issue and to determine whether the city should replace the art or adhere to its original decision to remove it.
The opinion may be ready by the next City Council meeting, on Oct. 9.
Meanwhile, the Oklahoma Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union was not so slow to express its opinion when it learned about the conflict that has been percolating for three months in this southeast Oklahoma town - known mostly for being the home of the Oklahoma State Penitentiary and the McAlester Army Ammunition Plant and once home of former Gov. George Nigh.
"The short answer is that to put these depictions of the crosses - and not just the crosses, but showing people in worship - putting those on state municipal property, any government property, is a violation of the First Amendment, a violation of the Establishment Clause," ACLU Legal Director Brady Henderson said.
At a minimum, the ACLU will send a letter expressing its concern to the City Council, but it might also send a representative to the next meeting in which the issue is on the agenda, which may be the Oct. 9 meeting, Henderson said.
It could even become embroiled in a lawsuit if the city decides to retract its earlier decision and put the silhouettes back on the signs.
"We will be involved," Henderson said. "I just don't know what level of involvement."
The controversy erupted as the result of a civic-minded act by 77-year-old Bob Wallace, a semi-retired businessman who is owner and CEO of a loan company with offices in seven states and 350 employees.
Wallace said he wanted nothing more than to add a little beauty to the city he loves and to share his admiration of the community's colorful past with others.
"I came up with the idea many years ago," said Wallace. "This city has been good to me, and I thought it was time to start giving back."
It took Wallace two years to get his project off the ground, and when he was finished he had created 125 silhouettes, each depicting a different scene out of the city's past and destined to be placed at street corners in the downtown area.
The city manager agreed that it was a fine idea.
That was before he learned that nine of the silhouettes had religious themes - including a depiction of the crucifixion; a motorcyclist kneeling in front of a cross; a couple of cowboys shaking hands with the cross between them; and other scenes.
Only three of the religious-themed silhouettes were in place before an unnamed caller complained, prompting Stasiak to consult with Ervin, who advised that they should be taken down.
The nine silhouettes were returned to Wallace, who gave them to local churches to be placed on their privately owned property. The 116 nonreligious silhouettes are still adorning downtown, as Wallace wished.
And then turmoil began, driven by church members and religious leaders.
Petitions were circulated and signed by a couple of thousand irate folks. There were standing room only City Council meetings, with crowds demanding that the silhouettes be put back up.
The most vocal religious leader has been James Prince, chairman of the executive board of the Gaines Creek Association of Free Will Baptists, an organization that represents six Free Will Baptist churches in the area.
"The city manager said they took down the silhouettes because they didn't want to offend anyone," said Prince, a retired management analyst for the Ammunition Plant. "That didn't sit right with the Christian community, as if we were an afterthought."
The Rev. Jim Caldwell, the priest at St. Joseph's Catholic Church, says the controversy "reflects the continued assault on both religious freedom and free speech."
According to Caldwell, religion is an integral part of McAlester's history, and the silhouettes represent that part of the history.
Henderson challenged Caldwell's position.
"The problem is that it is not only a historical symbol," he said. "As anyone knows, the cross is far more than historical; it is a symbol of faith. To say that it is merely depicting history is disingenuous."
He acknowledges that some may have difficulty reconciling the issue of freedom of speech and freedom of religion.
"The way the Constitution reconciles it is that basically it says you as a citizen have this right (of religious expression) but the government doesn't," Henderson said.
Original Print Headline: Religious signage leads to conflict
Several religious-themed silhouettes were taken down from McAlester street signs and placed on private property, such as this church parking sign. JERRY FINK / For the Tulsa World