Michigan Civil Rights Group Seeks Removal of Seventy-Year-Old Cross on Public Land

A civil rights group has called for the removal of a large white cross that sits on Sackrider Hill, which is state-owned property in Jackson County, Michigan. The Michigan Association of Civil Rights Activists (MACRA), whose mission statement is “[t]o support and defend the Bill of Rights in an ongoing effort to end government discrimination wherever it is found,” made a formal complaint on behalf of a local resident.

In April 1992, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources granted a permanent-use permit to the Grass Lake Ministerial Association for the placement and maintenance of the cross on Sackrider Hill so long as the association continued to exist. After making a Freedom of Information Act request, MACRA received copies of that permit and a letter from the then Waterloo Recreation Area park manager outlining requirements for the location of the cross, along with its appearance and maintenance.

“The letter and permit are disturbing because they demonstrate significant entanglement between religion and government,” MACRA cofounder Mitch Kahle said. “Without regard to the permit, it’s always unconstitutional for the state to appropriate, authorize, approve, or otherwise allow the erection and maintenance of sectarian religious symbols on public property.”

The association has requested the Michigan Department of Natural Resources remove the cross since it is clearly a religious display. The request states that the religious significance of the Latin cross is unambiguous and indisputable and adds that the cross should not be on state land.

“What authority did the state think it had to allow a permanent religious symbol on public land?” asked Kahle. “We expect the state will remove it. Courts are not favorable to crosses on public property.”

The location of the cross was criticized back in 1992 after a photograph was published in a local newspaper. However, no violation of the separation of church and state was declared at the time. The Jackson Citizen Patriot now reports that the Department of Natural Resources is reviewing the complaint and assessing it with the attorney general’s office. But, in process or not, clear violations of the church-state separation continue. The cross is the site of an annual Easter Sunday church service hosted by the Grass Lake Ministerial Association. Reverend Melvin Parker insisted that the service would be held as planned this year, despite any legal review.

The Establishment Clause prohibits the government or any law to hold one religion up above others as an established or state-endorsed religion. It also prohibits government actions from favoring one religion over another. The complaint lodged against the Sackrider Hill cross is not the only one. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals just rejected another appeal to save a large cross memorial on public property in Maryland. The Bladensburg cross case was originally won by the American Humanist Association’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center. Earlier this month, the appeals court voted 8-6 to reject the Maryland-National Capital Park & Planning’s latest request for a rehearing to overturn the panel decision from last October against the cross.

The AHA legal center is also actively litigating a case about another cross on public land in Pensacola, Florida. AHA Senior Counsel Monica Miller is currently scheduled to deliver oral arguments to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit on May 16 in Atlanta, Georgia. The AHA, in conjunction with the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FRFF), originally filed a lawsuit in 2015 on behalf of Pensacola residents who felt that a large cross, located in a city park and maintained by the city government, represented a clear favoring of the Christian faith by the Pensacola government.

Those who tire of these cases or wonder if these fights are really worth it would do well to remember the mission statement of the Michigan Association of Civil Rights Activists (MACRA): “to support and defend the Bill of Rights in an ongoing effort to end government discrimination wherever it is found.” Sometimes that place happens to be a public park in the shadow of a big white Christian cross.