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Potential ACLU costs nudge decision to remove town’s Christian fish s


REPUBLIC, Mo. (BP)–Facing the possibility of paying the American Civil Liberties Union’s costs in a lawsuit against the ichthus on their city seal, leaders of the small Missouri town of Republic have voted to remove the Christian fish symbol.
The July 19 decision by the town’s board of aldermen was loudly booed by those in attendance. The ichthus, a historic symbol of Christianity, has adorned Republic’s seal since 1990, when resident Marilyn Schexsnayder won a public competition to redesign the city’s seal.
Schexsnayder had said she thought the symbol represented all religions, former Republic resident Jean Webb, a self-described witch and a practitioner of Wicca, disagreed. Webb got the American Civil Liberties Union to side with her in a lawsuit against Republic, which she won in federal court July 9.
The board of aldermen’s July 19 decision did not sit well with the 200-some residents in attendance, many of whom yelled “spineless cowards!” after Mayor Doug Boatright broke a 4-4 tie by voting against an appeal. Boatright had won reelection in April by promising vigorous support for keeping the fish in the city symbol. Boatright had told the Kansas City Star the symbol was not an unconstitutional government endorsement of Christianity, but rather a depiction of the community’s general religious values.
“This is nothing but a victory by those who believe in the tyranny of the minority,” said Steve Fitschen, president of the National Legal Foundation of Virginia Beach, a Christian public interest law firm which represented Republic in its defense against Webb’s ACLU-backed lawsuit.
Fitschen said he believed Republic had an excellent chance to win on appeal.
“The first reason is that the woman who brought the case is no longer even a resident of the city, and therefore has no legal standing in this dispute anymore. We could have gotten the original decision thrown out on just that basis alone,” Fitschen said.
But even before Monday’s meeting, Fitschen was wary, thinking the town’s aldermen would be cowed by the prospect of having to pay the ACLU’s legal bills if they lost the appeal.
“You see, what the ACLU does is go around and tell towns unless you do what we want, we’ll take you to court and win and you’ll have to pay our legal bills. They always point out that the last town to fight them in court ended up paying X dollars for their legal expenses. By doing this, you see, they intimidate many towns to do their will without a court fight at all,” Fitschen said.
The ACLU, by filing under Section 42 of the US Code 1983 is able to demand reimbursement for its court costs from the losing side. In a case like that against Republic, those fees could have easily been $20,000 or more, Fitschen said.
“That is a very sobering thought for those who seek to stand up for a cause,” the attorney said.
Ray Bennett, 69, a deacon at First Baptist Church of Republic, agreed with Fitschen’s concerns but said he believed an appeal would not have made any difference.
“It may sound defeatist, but you cannot win when you try to stand for something others see as a intrusion into the separation of church and state,” Bennett said. “Everyone I talked to at church wanted to continue the fight. I just don’t think that would work.”
Bennett said even though those who supported the ichthus lost the court battle, they won the more important war of public opinion as the national media coverage of the ACLU’s lawsuit has educated millions as to what the fish symbol stands for.
“Before this, people would ask all the time what the fish represented. Now they know. So in a way, even though we lost, we won,” Bennett said.
Alderman DeWayne Willis, a Jewish rabbi who voted to end the court battle, said having the Christian symbol on the city seal hadn’t bothered him.
“As a matter of fact, I, like most city residents, didn’t even know the fish was on the city seal. I had seen the seal, but the fish is part of a much larger design, and unless you look for it, it doesn’t just jump out at you. Having it on the seal didn’t bother me, but fighting what is sure to be a losing battle to keep it there, would,” Willis said.
“The money we would have spent fighting this is money that could be better spent elsewhere,” Willis said.