Are crosses in Caldwell County office crossways with the law?

Posted December 19, 2017 2:30 p.m. EST

LOCKHART, Texas -- At the invitation of an Austinite who's upset by something he saw in the Caldwell County District Clerk's Office, I recently made the 30-mile drive south to Lockhart to take a look at that something.

He's right. It's wrong. And we're not the only two who think so.

The outside door to the district clerk's office has a holiday wreath. Festive and seasonal. Nothing wrong there. It's what's inside on the wall that has drawn criticism. Unavoidable and unmistakable and prominently hanging on the wall are a pair of symbols of one of the world's great religions.

But crosses have no place in a government office. Ditto for a symbol of anyone's religion.

FYI, the Caldwell County District Clerk's Office is in the county's Justice Center, not in the county's beautiful courthouse. The clerk's office -- where the public goes to transact all manner of official government business -- is in an impressively repurposed former Walmart.

I went into the office, saw the crosses and asked to speak with Tina Morgan Freeman, the district clerk who's had the job since 2007. I asked her my question. She made it clear she didn't want to talk about the crosses. I turned off my voice recorder and she offered me some background which I'm going to treat as off the record.

I turned my recorder back on and re-offered an opportunity to discuss the crosses.

"Do you consider those crosses to be religious symbols?" I asked.

My recorder captured her silence and the sound of the door she closed on me as she headed back to her office. So I don't know if she considers the crosses to be religious symbols, which, of course, would seem inappropriate in a government office. I also don't know how long they've been displayed or who paid for them.

Neither does the Anti-Defamation League, which says it's been waiting for an answer since it asked Freeman about them in an Aug. 4 letter.

"On behalf of the Anti-Defamation League, we write to express our deep concerns regarding reports that the District Clerk's Office has Latin Crosses prominently hanging on its office wall," said the letter from Dayan Gross, the league's southwest regional director, and Rachel Bresner, the league's southwest civil rights counsel.

To be clear here, the league, prior to my inquiry, had not publicly released the letter.

More from the missive:

"We believe that the best way to safeguard religious freedom is through the separation of church and state embedded in the First Amendment's Establishment Clause, which allows all Texans to freely practice their various faiths without government interference, endorsement or support. At the heart of the Establishment Clause is the principle that the government remains neutral between religions and between religion and non-religion."

"It is our understanding from a constituent that the Caldwell County District Clerk's Office prominently displays two crosses, the preeminent symbol of Christianity, on its office wall. Individuals of religions, and those of no religion, pass the crosses daily as they carry on their business at the clerk's office. The crosses displayed are much like those commonly found in Christian churches, an unmistakable symbolization of Christianity, which sends an implicit message to non-Christians that they are outsiders in the community and a corresponding message to adherents that they are insiders," the letter states.

The league told Freeman the crosses "may be constitutionally problematic as a display that advances or endorses the Christian religion" and urged her "to focus on displays that unite all Texans and remove the Latin Crosses displayed in the clerk's office. We welcome the opportunity to discuss this with you further and look forward to hearing from you."

It doesn't seem to be asking too much to remove the religious symbols. And it's asking even less to discuss the crosses. In addition to opting not to answer my questions, Freeman also has not responded to the league's letter.

My attempt to discuss the matter with Caldwell County Judge Ken Schawe, the county's top administration official, also produced silence. He has not returned my phone calls nor responded after I went to his office last week while he was not in.

Freeman and Schawe are running for re-election next year. I can see why a small-town elected official might not welcome a controversy with religious overtones, nor the potential prospect of having to spend taxpayer money to defend against a legal challenge of the crosses.

But Freeman evidences an arrogance of office by ignoring the league's request and shutting her government door on someone asking about them. I trust that somebody in Caldwell County officialdom will explain all of this to her. And if that doesn't happen, somebody should take this to court.

And anticipating a question here, let's talk about the big Hanukkah menorah that's been on display in front of Austin City Hall. City spokesman David Green says it's legal because it's on the "free-speech portion of the plaza that is available for the public to reserve for use."

"Since it is not a city display, the folks that put it on go through the same process outlined in the building use policy as any other non-city group wishing to use the space," he told me.

Austin Chabad is the non-city group in this case. Among the considerations in the city policy is whether a requested display would "honor the cultural diversity of the city's citizens." Such displays are good and valuable. But it's important they're also understood as not being government endorsement of a particular faith.

It's hard to see the permanently displayed crosses in the Caldwell County District Clerk's Office as anything but that.

Ken Herman is a columnist for the Austin American-Statesman. Email: kherman(at)statesman.com.

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