essay by Chris Struble
As I write this, it is Saturday, November 27th, and 10,000 people have just finished a march in favor of keeping the Table Rock cross right where it is.
Just how did this come to pass? The controversy began on November 6, when atheist human rights activist Rob Sherman visited Boise and spoke at BSU at the request of Idaho Atheists. In what was described as a “canned speech on atheism”, Sherman mentioned that he was shocked that there was a Christian cross overlooking the city, and that it should be removed.
The news media picked up on this comment, and Sherman, a radio talk show host, played it up as well. Over the next few days a controversy ballooned, and Sherman has found evidence that the Idaho Board of Lands and the Boise Jaycees colluded in a closed sale of the land the cross stands on for the purpose of promoting Christianity. If true, this would be a violation of state law.
All this started while we were out of town, but I’ve been doing a little research and have learned a few things.
First, a bit of background: The Junior Chamber of Commerce, or Jaycees, is a national organization founded in 1946 to promote free enterprise and community involvement. In 1950, the Jaycee’s creed was expanded to include belief in God, and since that time, promotion of Christianity seems to have been part of its mission. In the 1950s, the group built the cross on what was then Department of Corrections land.
In 1971, the Oregon state supreme court ruled in favor of an ACLU lawsuit to remove a cross displayed on public land in that state. By this time, Table Rock was under the control of the Idaho Board of Lands. The Jaycees were concerned that the ACLU would try to have the Table Rock cross removed in a similar fashion. To prevent this, the Jaycees asked the Land Board to sell them the land, but to keep the auction as quiet as possible. The board agreed not to mention the cross in the public notice of the land sale, and also resolved to reject any competing bids. A small parcel of land under the cross was sold to the Jaycees for $100. Supporting documents are available at www.robsherman.com.
Since 1971, legal challenges to the cross have gone nowhere because the cross is on “private land” But if the sale of the land itself were found illegal, this defense would collapse.
This would not be the first time that the Land Board has engaged in questionable dealings. Its long standing practice of leasing state land to ranchers even when others have made much higher bids for the land has come under increasing criticism because it violates the board’s charter to maximize revenues from the land. Selling land in a closed auction would seem to violate the same charter.
Even if the manner of the sale were deemed to be legal, the purpose of the sale may not have been. If, as it seems clear, the land was sold for the purpose of promoting Christianity, it violates the separation of church and state.
A related question is whether the Jaycees is a religious organization. The Boy Scouts of America, for example, have claimed that they are a private religious organization and therefore have the right to discriminate against unbelievers. It would be interesting to know if the Jaycees make a similar claim, and if they discriminate against unbelievers. If so, it makes it very hard to claim that the sale was for a secular purpose.
The controversy over the Table Rock cross may prove to be the one of the biggest battles for separation of church and state in Idaho history. On the surface it looks as if the battle is over before it has even begun. I have talked to several members of Idaho Atheists, and some feel that the negative publicity from this may have been so severe that the group may never be able to recover from it. Others see it as an opportunity for outreach and progress, however.
More important than the cross itself perhaps is the opportunity for discussion once the controversy dies down. How do we as a community come to terms with the fact that Boise is changing and becoming more diverse, with growing numbers of non-Christians? Many of the city’s Christians have not come to terms with this at all, and continue to see non-Christians and especially atheists as outsiders, even as a threat to the community.
So far, Humanists of Idaho has not been involved in this battle and has not gotten much publicity, positive or negative, out of it. How do you feel about this? What does the cross mean to you personally? Do you find it in any way distressing or threatening? Should Humanists of Idaho speak out about it, or would you prefer that we focus on other issues? Let us know.