First Amendment Scholar to Speak at Council on St. Anne Cross

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Sunday, September 23, 2012, 11:51 am
Aron "Raz" Sousa

The controversies surrounding St. Anne Lofts and its cross continue. As ELi previously reported, City Attorney Thomas Yeadon’s August 31, 2012 memo to the East Lansing City Council advised the city that “there was clearly no violation of the Establishment Clause…” and that “the First Amendment would prohibit the City from precluding such an architectural feature on this private property and/or requiring its removal.”

That is not so clear according to Frank Ravitch, MSU Professor of Law and Walter H. Stowers Chair in Law and Religion. Professor Ravitch plans to speak to City Council during the public comments section of Council's regular meeting on Tuesday, October 2, at 7:30 pm. It is Professor Ravitch’s opinion “that the Free Exercise arguments suggested in favor of allowing the large cross supported in part by city funds are not consistent with current understandings of the Free Exercise Clause.”

The First Amendment includes several core freedoms, all of which seem to be involved in this particular building, including freedom of speech and the press, freedom of assembly, and the right to “petition the government for redress of grievances.”

The portion of the amendment that address religion is as follows: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." Both clauses, “establishment of religion” and “free exercise” of religion, appear to be at issue in this project.

As I see it (and perhaps Professor Ravitch, the real scholar in this area, will differ with me in his October 2 remarks), the cross comes with two core establishment clause concerns. The first is that the considerable public financing in the case helps establish a religious presence facing a public square, Ann Street Plaza. If the city, on behalf of its citizens, spends money that assists in raising a four-story Christian symbol, it could be that the city is helping establish one religion in preference to others or to none at all.

The second establishment clause concern is that the extraordinary regulatory violations allowed in the project constitute favoritism in support of erecting a religious symbol. The building was allowed to progress despite absences of appropriate building permits, adequate documentation, and subsequently a collapse during construction. Allowing repeated violations of city regulations could constitute favoritism.

This concern is heightened by the recent discovery by ELi that the city had architectural plans including the obvious Christian cross in late 2011 or early 2012, before the city issued a building permit to construct the above-ground structure (drawing in earliest submitted plans shown below). This could allow the conclusion that city staff knew of the plans for the cross while facilitating the project through multiple violations of building regulation.

A memo from building inspector Jim Hoffman to Planning Director Tim Dempsey and City Manager George Lahanas, dated July 10, 2012, suggests that at least Code Enforcement, Planning, and the City Manager knew about the cross before it was installed. Hoffman wrote in that memo, entitled "St. Anne Field Observation," "The precast cross element on the front of the building has not been installed yet." (See item 2 on p. 2 at this download.) © 2013-2020 East Lansing Info