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Small Missouri town & ACLU battle over logo displaying a fish

REPUBLIC, Mo. (BP)–Critics say the small southwest Missouri town of Republic is trying too hard to live up to name — even pretending it is more sovereign than the U.S. Constitution. Many of the city’s 8,000 residents, however, including some Missouri Baptists, say a group of outside agitators is ruining the peace and quiet of their little community.
It’s all over a fish. The American Civil Liberties Union’s Ozarks chapter is proceeding with plans for a lawsuit against the city, in a controversy which reached The New York Times’ front page June 23. ACLU officials say the suit will be filed on behalf of a Republic resident who has complained about the city’s logo, designed in 1990. The “ichthus,” the fish symbol used by ancient Christians as a sign of their faith, is one of four images on the logo, which adorns city stationery and police cars, among other things.
In February, the ACLU asked the city to remove the fish from its logo and replace it with a secular symbol. The ACLU, which prevailed against a nearby city by sending a similar warning, says use of an overtly Christian symbol to represent a government entity violates the First Amendment’s clause against establishment of a religion.
“I think most of the churches here that I know of come at it with the idea that we’re not establishing a religion by the symbols,” said Russell Winkler, pastor of Republic’s First Christian Church. “The religion has already been established; it’s just that we’re using the symbol in the logo.”
Winkler said using public money to pay for use of such a logo is no different than a municipality using public money to pay for Christmas lights.
On May 15, the city’s aldermen voted not to remove the symbol. According to The Times, the fish symbol now appears all over town, from a banner on the side of Calvary Baptist Church, to sidewalks, to a featured manicure at a local nail salon.
ACLU officials say the city has never responded to their requests directly. “We requested in February that the city of Republic remove the symbol,” said Gay Revi, a member of the board for ACLU of the Ozarks and the ACLU’s larger regional body. “We never mentioned the term ‘lawsuit;’ all it was was a polite request to Republic.” The city “never considered the fact that there was someone in the community who might be offended by this,” Revi said.
Revi and the ACLU have not released the name of the plaintiff on whose behalf they are filing suit. She said the ACLU office received several complaints about the ichthus from Republic residents and others in the months prior to the request to remove the symbol.
City’s officials have rallied around the aldermen’s refusal to dump the fish. Mayor Douglas Boatwright, who embraced the fish in winning re-election in April, has said to The Kansas City Star and other media outlets that the symbol is not an unconstitutional government endorsement of Christianity, but rather a depiction of the community’s general religious values.
But don’t tell that to some of the Christians who have contributed to the massive public outcry against the symbol’s removal. They view the city’s action as a direct defense of Christianity. Bill Laffoon is immediate past deacon chairman at First Baptist Church of Republic. “Of course it represents a Christian symbol, but I don’t think there’s maybe but one or two people in the whole city opposed to it,” he said. “I don’t go along with the ACLU’s opinion that it needs to be removed because it’s going to hurt someone’s feelings, because the vast majority of the people here support he symbol, and the vast majority of the people aren’t too fond of the ACLU.”
ACLU board member Revi says that attitude is why Republic residents opposed to the symbol are afraid to speak up. “I think it’s safe to say right now there’s a climate of fear for anyone who is different from the majority in Republic,” she said. She explained that the Ozarks ACLU office has received two threatening phone calls and several more harassing ones. “Both of them had almost the exact same wording: ‘Stay out of Republic; we know what you look like. Remember: Jesus loves you.'”
Revi said Christians should be on the ACLU’s side rather than against it on this issue, because their religious liberty would not exist if it were not for the First Amendment. “I lived in a Muslim country for 11 years, and I’ve seen what happens when government favors one religion over another. I have probably defended more Christians from persecution than most people in this country.
“And I am not even a Christian.”
But Laffoon thinks Revi and other ACLU supporters are making a mountain out of a molehill. “I don’t have much use for the ACLU’s argument, personally,” he said. “It’s such a penny-ante thing.”

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  • Rob Marus