After leaders of a small Texas town were faced with a lawsuit from Freedom From Religion Foundation over a religious-themed greeting sign to the city of Hawkins, other communities rallied to support the concept that Jesus is welcome in East Texas. Now city officials are on the path to sue church representatives who believe they took over the property on which the sign was erected. Which entity that holds a clear title to the property is still in question.
In June, the foundation's staff threatened the city of Hawkins with a lawsuit because a sign that reads "Jesus Welcomes You To Hawkins" was placed on what was perceived to be public property. Foundation representatives said the sign was unconstitutional because the government cannot endorse religion over non-religion or one type of religion over another. They said the landmark specifically violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, prohibiting public ground for advancing, supporting or promoting religion.
A letter from Wisconsin-based foundation staff attorney Sam Grover sent to Hawkins City Council members indicated their purpose is to "protect the constitutional separation between state and church." Foundation representatives repeatedly have indicated they have no problem with private citizens exercising their right to free speech on private properties.
As awareness about the lawsuit increased, signs were placed in several communities - including Longview, Diana, Gilmer, Ore City and Big Sandy - each reading "Jesus Welcomes You To" followed by the name of the respective city, reports the Longview News-Journal.
Randy Tyree told the Journal in July he chose to put up the sign because Christians have rights, too. "Just because somebody doesn't like the sign doesn't mean it should be taken down."
Tyree owns First Choice Auto Repair in Longview. He posted a sign on his property saying, "Jesus Welcomes You To Longview."
Grover said he discovered Hawkins Mayor Will Rogers had "composed the wording and had public school students paint it, magnifying the state/church entanglement," although Rogers said the sign was the idea of private citizens.
In September, Hawkins City Council members voted to remove the sign to avoid a lawsuit from the Foundation, and to place it in storage for 30 days. According to the Journal, immediately after the vote, representatives of Jesus Christ Open Altar Church LLC took control of the site where the sign sits, and people guarded the sign day and night.
During December, Hawkins city officials voted to sue the church that purchased the land where the sign sits.
Also named in the lawsuit are Beaty Funeral Home Inc. and Croley Funeral Home Inc., whose owners sold the land to the church, reports Tyler Morning Telegraph. The suit claims the funeral homes did not have the legal right to sell the small parcel because it is owned by the city.
Earlier this year, city officials claimed the city did not own the land. However, Alvin Flynn, an attorney representing the city, recently said that assessment was an error. A subsequent title search reportedly indicated the property was owned by the city.
The church's attorneys, in a letter to city officials, shared details from an independent land survey requested by Open Altar and performed by KSA Engineers for Commercial Real Estate Law Richard E. Roberts. The survey disputes the claims the city owns the land and cites precedent established by similar cases.
"I did want to make the point perfectly clear, we have a clear title," Mark McDonald, administrative director of Jesus Christ Open Altar Church said in an article published in the Telegraph.
"The city has never owned that property at all. At one time, 112 years ago, they had specific purpose easement, which is not ownership of property."
McDonald said he "intends to fight this to the very end," indicating he would appeal as many times as necessary should the court rule in the city's favor.
Grover said the foundation has not yet pursued official legal action against the city of Hawkins because officials have been responsive and said they were going to remove the sign. "We're going to see how (the land case) is hashed out."