HAWKINS, Texas (Christian Examiner) – A sign welcoming passersby to Hawkins, Texas, in the name of Jesus – a sign that caused the Freedom from Religion Foundation to threaten legal action against the city in June – is on private property, according to the city officials.
"Unless something shows up that I'm not aware of, then I do not believe that it is on city property," city attorney Alvin Flynn said at a city meeting Monday, KYTX, the CBS TV affiliate in Tyler, reported.
City officials in Hawkins were warned in a June 1 letter from the Wisconsin-based liberal church-state watchdog group that the sign, which reads "Jesus Welcomes You to Hawkins," was a violation of the separation of church and state and would have to be torn down immediately.
That letter, obtained by Christian Examiner, claimed the sign "conveys both a government preference for religion over non-religion, and prefers Christianity over other religions."
"The display of religious messages on public property violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which prohibits public grounds from advancing, supporting or promoting religion," the letter from FFRF's staff attorney, Sam Grover, said.
"The 'Jesus Welcomes You to Hawkins' sign sends a message to the City's citizens that the Hawkins government is endorsing and compelling belief in a particular god," the June 1 letter said.
Many of the citizens in the town, located on a rural highway, pushed back, lamenting "Northern aggression" and promising to fight to keep the sign. City officials, rather than rushing to take down the sign, conducted a site survey to determine who owned the land on which the sign sits.
In another letter, dated July 22, the atheist group issued a second demand that the sign be removed. It claimed that who owns the land beneath the sign is irrelevant. The city had allowed it to be constructed, and its approval of the construction – completed by volunteers in 2011 with no cost to the city – was itself a violation of the separation of church and state.
Now, Grover said that the city's current finding "helps to mitigate the appearance that the city of Hawkins is endorsing a particular religious message."
"The Freedom from Religion Foundation has no problem with private citizens expressing their personal religious beliefs on private property. That's a freedom we all enjoy."
However, he said the city still has questions to answer. "We do have records indicating that the city council approved the placement of the sign in the first place and that they approved it to go on government property," Grover told KYTX. He said he anticipates a continuation of dialogue with the city.
Will Rogers, mayor of the city, told the news station that – for now – "the sign stays right where it's at."
One citizen told KYTX he was disappointed in the city's defense of the sign. The city, Mark McDonald said, should not be negotiating with FFRF out of fear. He said the city should write FFRF a simple letter, stating, "We don't own the sign. We don't own the land. It's none of our business."