Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Mayor: Cross Had to Go Meserve Says Parks Not Places for Symbols

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Mayor: Cross Had to Go Meserve Says Parks Not Places for Symbols

Article excerpt

ATLANTIC BEACH - Public parks should be places for recreation and enjoyment, not for collecting religious symbols, said Mayor John Meserve.

Meserve made his comments during Monday's City Commission meeting after receiving an 18-page summary of case law from the city attorney about religious symbols on public property.

Last month, the city took down the arm from a longstanding wooden cross in Howell Park in response to a letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation urging the immediate removal of the symbol. The city's decision disappointed some pastors in Atlantic Beach.

On Monday, Meserve, who was sworn in as mayor last week, defended the city's decision.

Parks are "not a place we put up the religious structures of choice," said Meserve, who also warned that extremist groups may wish to leave offensive symbols. "The basic thing is not being spineless. If you don't stop one, you can't stop any."

On Monday, City Attorney Alan Jensen urged commissioners to read his legal findings, contact him with questions and, if desired, ask the city manager to put the issue on a commission agenda for further discussion.

Jensen's new findings warn that if a court were to determine that Atlantic Beach owns or maintains a cross on its property, the symbol may violate the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution based on the "perceived endorsement" of the Christian religion by the city.

Although city officials are unclear about the origin of the cross, they said they think it was privately installed about 15 years ago for a wedding.

Jensen asked commissioners to consider whether they want to be responsible for future religious symbols left in parks.

Atlantic Beach residents Jim and Margaret DiPietro expressed their disappointment Monday about the removal of the arm of the cross.

"I cannot understand how one person can make us take down the arm of the cross?" said Jim DiPietro. "I enjoyed the cross being there."

The city's parks and recreation department is keeping the arm of the cross for use upon request for weddings and other private events.

The controversy surrounding the cross surfaced in May after an Atlantic Beach homemaker complained about the presence of the symbol in a city park. …

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