WHITEVILLE, Tenn. (BP) — To show support for a Tennessee town facing legal action against a cross atop its water tower, area residents carried a 12-foot cross nine miles to Whiteville, where it was presented to city representatives during a rally that drew about 350 people.
The effort was organized by Jimmy Sain, a member of First Baptist Church in Bolivar, Tenn., where the Jan. 21 walk originated.
The controversy, which has drawn local and national attention to the town of 3,000, has brought Whiteville residents together, several residents told the Baptist & Reflector newsjournal of the Tennessee Baptist Convention.
Many homes and businesses in Whiteville bear crosses to show support for the cross on the water tower.
A federal lawsuit against Whiteville is being pressed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a nonprofit group based in Wisconsin which represented a complainant that the town is displaying “a patently religious symbol such as a Christian cross on public property,” according to an article on the foundation’s website.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation also has sent complaints to Somerville, Tenn., which also has a cross on its water tower. But the foundation has taken no further action because, according to its website, “FFRF … currently lacks a resident willing to be a plaintiff.”
Whiteville Mayor James Bellar, who attends Morris Chapel Baptist Church, has represented the city during much of the fray but has been instructed by attorneys not to speak further on the matter. Bellar had planned to accept the cross carried from Bolivar but was advised not to. Instead, a local businessman who has made most of the crosses for Whiteville residents’ yards accepted the cross.
When the foundation learned of Bellar’s intention to accept the cross on his private time on a Saturday, Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president, told WBBJ-TV in Jackson, Tenn., “[T]his is what the founders of our nation really wanted to avoid, the union of religion and government, the appearance that government officials were part of religion or promote religions.”
Gaylor said it made no difference whether the mayor accepted the cross as a citizen or the mayor. “He’s accepting the cross in his behalf as mayor of Whiteville. He’s on record using his mayoral powers to promote religion to defend religion and government, so you have to look at the pattern,” she said.
After the federal lawsuit was filed last October, the city removed an arm of the cross and removed crosses posted on public land, but the FFRF lawsuit has not been dropped.
The cross was bought and installed on the water tower eight years ago after an effort led by a ladies Sunday School class of First Baptist Church in Whiteville. Members of the class were familiar with the cross on Somerville’s water tower, checked with the mayor and, after receiving the go-ahead, launched a fundraising effort for the cross.
Sain said he has watched all that has occurred and decided to let Bellar know of his support and to take a stand for Christianity, he explained, by organizing the walk, which was dubbed the Cross Walk.
Sain said he doesn’t agree with the way FFRF is interpreting the law and lauds Mayor Bellar for being courageous against the demands of the foundation and the unnamed complainant.
He also said he doesn’t think an organization from so far away and with a lot of money should “pick on” a small town with little money and its mayor.
According to reports, the city of Whiteville will not suffer financially from the lawsuit because it has insurance to cover such a situation.
Sain, who works for a helicopter operation, said he was glad to organize the walk/rally. He was helped by Martha Anderson, a fellow member of FBC, Bolivar, who constructed the cross, which weighed about 50 pounds. A group or individual carried the cross for a mile and then transferred it to the next responsible party as organized by Sain.
Bill Sorrell, pastor of First Baptist in Whiteville, said he understands the issue of separation of church and state but believes the majority should rule in a city such as Whiteville where most residents want the cross on the water tower. He and other residents wonder why “a Northern, godless organization can tell us what to do.” The pastor added that residents have become “very emotional” about the cross issue.
One positive outcome of the controversy is how it has united the community, Sorrell said.
He said he heard one astute quip from a resident: If the person who is offended by the cross is an atheist, why are they looking up anyway?
Sorrell also noted that “it takes more of a spiritual effort to put up a cross in your heart” than put up a cross in your yard. “If everybody who put a cross in their yard would go to church, it would make more of a spiritual impact in Whiteville.”
Connie D. Bushey is news editor of the Baptist & Reflector (www.tnbaptist.org), newsjournal of the Tennessee Baptist Convention.