Forty minutes from Providence, on Route 28 in Middleboro, MA stands a tall brick cross displaying the word “WORSHIP” in bold block letters. According to Jane Lopes, writing for the Middleboro Gazette:
The 12-foot high, 7-foot wide brick cross was designed by local businessman Burt Andrews in 1959 and erected by the Kiwanis Club as a non-denominational call to "worship," with the message in white letters on each side of the structure. 'Local Kiwanians express the hope that this unique and worthy project will be an inspiration to all who pass on the highway and that the idea will be emulated by Kiwanis clubs elsewhere,' The Gazette reported at the time. But the cross is not believed to have been replicated anywhere else.
Another piece notes that the cross was put up “in collaboration with the Middleboro Unitarian Universalist Church.”
Last year a Boston attorney noticed the cross and registered a complaint with the state Department of transportation, says Lopes, “Since then, the American Civil Liberties Union, an organization devoted to enforcing the separation of church and state, and a few local residents have demanded that the cross be removed or taken down.”
It turns out that the cross is placed on land that is co-owned by the state and county. The Middleboro Town Meeting on Monday night decided to take possession of the land so that they can defend the presence of the cross. According to EnterpriseNews.com, “In an effort to resolve the matter, the state and county agreed to donated their shares of the island to the town, which in turn will sell it to the local Kiwanis Club.”
This is a dangerous plan. The government cannot simply give land away without going through a bid process. The Kiwanis Club may well want the land and may well want to restore and maintain the cross, but they would have to purchase the land, and pay more than others for the privilege. After all, we don’t want the government in the business of donating public lands to private groups for religious causes.
As is usual with cases like this, those on the side that would see religious displays on public land are loathe to be completely open about their religious motivations, having slowly and painfully learned that loud proclamations of religious views work against the idea that the monuments may have some secular purpose. Kiwanis Club President Robert Kinney said, "Whether it's religious or not, it's historic.” As if a twelve foot tall Christian cross with the word “WORSHIP” across it could be construed as anything other than religious.
In learning that the Middleboro Town Council has decided to take possession of the land in order to give it to the Kiwanis Club, Kinney said, "This is the outcome I had hoped and prayed for.” Whether Kinney’s prayers are religious or not seems open for debate, I suppose.
Middleboro is a small town that has wrestled with First Amendment issues in the past. In June of 2012 the Town Council passed an ordinance outlawing public profanity punishable with a $20 fine. Most Constitutional experts agree that this law violates the Constitution. According to Wikipedia, “The Massachusetts attorney general will review the bylaw to determine if it is constitutional and adheres to state law. The Massachusetts state director for the American Civil Liberties Union said, 'the Supreme Court has ruled that the government can't prohibit public speech just because it contains profanity.'"
There’s much that is unusual about the Middleboro Cross. For one thing Unitarian Universalist congregations are not usually at the center of such controversies. Most of the contested monuments and banners put up around country owe their origins to more conservative Protestant or Catholic groups. Put in place in 1959, this cross was erected during the height of the Red Scare, within a few years of the words “under God” being inserted into the Pledge of Allegiance and the placement of the controversial Cranston West Prayer Banner here in Rhode Island. However, the Kiwanis Club is not like the Knights of Columbus, they don’t have a religious affiliation.
There is local flavor to the controversy as well. Jeff Stevens, a former elementary school principal, argued against taking possession of the land, which he says (rightly, by my estimation) will put Middleboro residents on the hook for the legal costs involved in defending the cross. Stevens is a member of the Middleboro Unitarian Universalist Church. “In the 1950s, this was a community that was pretty consistently a Christian community," noted Stevens, "but this community, like all, is far more divers[e] than it used to be.”
Meanwhile, on the other side of the issue sits “former selectman” Lincoln Andrews, who loves the plan to sell the land to the Kiwanis Club. According to one source, “It should be noted that the cross was built by the brick company [Andrews] father founded, and of which [Andrews] is now president.”
Those in attendance at the Middleboro Meeting approved the plan to sell the land to the Kiwanis Club 228 to 10.