Table Rock cross controversy

essay by Chris Struble
December 1999

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.

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10 Responses to Table Rock cross controversy

  1. Joey Haywood says:

    Keep the cross up lite and going strong. GOD

  2. Joey Haywood says:

    Keep the cross up. IT’s a symbol of what happened 2000 years ago when Jesus was nail to it for the forgiveness of our sins. Alot of people are scared of the words GOD and JESUS. One more thing the state should have no say in what u belive in. THE STATE IS RAN BY THE DEVIL.

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  4. Manny Pereira says:

    Every state in the nation should have a giant cross erected on the highest mountain top!
    Thanks be to JESUS!

  5. admin says:

    Every state in the nation should remove ALL crosses that are on ANY public lands. The cross is 1. an instrument of inhumane Roman torture, and 2. a symbol of an equally inhumane religious dogma. In both cases, the cross represents intolerance of differing beliefs and ways of life, and as such is offensive to civilized and intelligent human beings, as well the opposite of the religious neutrality and tolerance guaranteed by the American constitution. For taxpayer money to be used to support this symbol of intolerance and torture is offensive, in and of itself.

  6. Alicia says:

    To my husband and I, it reminds us of what Christ did for us on the cross. Our country continues to to away from God our creator and it will be a sad day when Christ returns, because then all will know that what they have been denying is real. Blessings, Alicia

  7. admin says:

    Pretending that Christ did anything other than simply die on the cross as punishment for his subversive activities, serves no useful purpose. While the resurrection myth clearly has an odd appeal in certain circles, it is myth nonetheless, not to mention illogical and irrational. But more important: worshipping a Roman instrument of death and horror – the cross – is something that decent and moral persons should find disturbing. Much like pretending to drink the blood and eat the flesh of Christ during religious rituals. Most disturbing

  8. Jordan says:

    I would say take the cross down. The land originally was a sacred site to the American Indians of the valley. They used the surrounded hot springs for healing, and would have big fires on the plateau. Many bones were buried in the area, so the site has special value. A lot of suffering came to the America’s because of the christian faith, so to put a big cross in the rock is like putting a flag in a dead person’s back. The rock is of the land and everyone on the earth shares the land, and not everyone is a Christian.

    Take the cross down, if you want a bright glowing light in the night go look at the moon.

  9. Jesus' values believer as a atheist says:

    Essentially, Jesus believed in the very things that us atheists champion. Peace, helping others, forgiving others, and embracing the homeless/prostitutes/thieves/ that are shamed by their families; to ensure the happiness as society as a whole. Rehab is the key to those situations.
    I find no wrong with a symbol of a man; either symbolized as a messiah or a ordinary citizen being represented by the city of boise. We find ordinary citizens everyday on the internet as “heros”. Why not Jesus? He doesn’t need to be our messiah so-to-speak; just a symbol of how man can show such extraordinary compassion and courage in a time when violence and judgement ran rampant.
    Even a logical person can read the bible and understand that his values, at the time (or today for that matter), were revolutionary and abstract during a time of violence and judgement. If only we all thought and lived like him. Kudos to a good human being.
    I can’t help but to think that the other atheists out there that would want the Table Rock cross to come down have some guilt for something they have done when they look at it. We all need a legit hero to address our guilt for societal short-comings; man or myth. Table Rock cross up!

  10. That cross is as inappropriate as it is an eyesore.

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