NEW ORLEANS -- The American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday demanding the removal of signs outside a southeastern Louisiana town that proclaim: "Jesus is Lord over Franklinton." ACLU officials said public money was used to put the signs on state roads. The town, its mayor and Washington Parish were named as defendants. Parish President M.E. Taylor said area churches paid for the signs and parish road crews erected them. He said they will be removed if judged illegal.
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday demanding the removal of signs outside a southeastern Louisiana town that proclaim: "Jesus is Lord over Franklinton." ACLU officials said public money was used to put up the signs on state roads, violating the constitutional separation of church and state.
"Can you imagine the hostility that Jews, Muslims, members of other minority faiths and non-believers must feel when living in or passing through that community?" asked Linton Carney, who first saw the signs in July while driving through Franklinton, 55 miles north of New Orleans. He said he has no religious affiliation.The suit names the town, its mayor and surrounding Washington Parish as defendants.
"Public officials in that parish know the law. Unfortunately, they decided to engage in endorsement of religion," said Joe Cook, executive director of the ACLU of Louisiana.Franklinton Mayor Earle Brown said the town had nothing to do with the signs and has told the ACLU so. "We have no knowledge of who put them up," said Brown, adding that they appeared a couple of years ago. Last week, ACLU officials threatened to sue the mayor of Inglis, Fla., unless she removes her proclamation banning Satan within the town limits from posts at the town's entrances. The mayor, a devout Christian, wrote the proclamation on Halloween night. It was typed on town stationary and affixed with the town seal.
A small southern Louisiana town is the latest battleground for a classic First Amendment showdown over the separation of church and state, pitting a feisty judge with a painting of Christ in his courthouse against the nation's top civil liberties group.
The American Civil Liberties Union sued Judge Jim Lamz of Slidell, La., earlier this month for refusing to take down a portrait of Jesus Christ above the words "To know peace, obey these laws" displayed in a courthouse lobby. The judge says he believes the picture is legal, and the mayor of the city — the mayor and the town are also named in the lawsuit — called the ACLU "America's Taliban."
The case began when a man walked into the Slidell courthouse earlier this year and saw the portrait, which has hung there for a decade.
The man, who is insisting on anonymity because of the nature of the case, is named in the suit as "John Doe." In his first media interview since jointly filing the lawsuit with the ACLU on July 3, the man told ABC News about his encounter with the display.
"You go in the courthouse, and you can't miss it," he said. "And I'm thinking, 'This is a court of law and they're blatantly disobeying the law with a religious symbol.'"
A Christian Defense
The town is represented in the suit by the Christian-inspired Alliance Defense Fund, which might be called the right-wing version of the ACLU.
"[The ACLU is] one of the worst attackers of religious speech in America," Gary McCaleb, senior legal counsel for the ADF, told ABC News.
Court fights over religious symbols on public property are a cottage industry in America, from Christmas displays on town greens to judges who post the Ten Commandments in their courtroom. At the heart of these fights are the First Amendment's famous first 10 words, known as the Establishment Clause.
The words — "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion" — seem pretty plain, but they are anything but to the parties involved in a legal scrap like the one in Slidell. And, with a decidedly right-leaning Supreme Court sitting in Washington, there is new zeal among groups like ADF to pursue such cases.
The ACLU and its supporters say the words in the Establishment Clause mean that no government entity can promote or endorse one religion over others. But the ADF believes the words should not bar religious expression by government institutions and were only meant to prevent the creation of a government-sponsored church.
The circumstances surrounding the Jesus painting make the Slidell case intriguing. Because the painting is the only display in the courthouse lobby aside from a picture of the courthouse's founding judge, the ACLU believes it's a religious symbol.
But the judge and his supporters flatly dispute this. Mike Johnson, an ADF senior legal counsel based in Louisiana, told ABC News the display is legal because there's no intent to advance a religion.
"The clear secular purpose for this thing was to decorate the walls," Johnson said. "This is not some sort of ulterior motive to advance Christianity."
Court's Conflicted History
Current law and past cases put the painting in uncertain territory. Two years ago, during the Supreme Court of Chief Justice William Rehnquist, two separate and conflicting decisions were issued involving religious displays on government property.