How come there's a cross on Austin utility bills?
Posted January 8, 2018 2:42 p.m. EST
AUSTIN, Texas -- Austin American-Statesman reader James Jackson recently had a suggestion for me. Unlike some readers' suggestions, this one is physically possible. His hit my inbox after my recent column complaining about the two crosses hanging in in the Caldwell County District Clerk's Office in Lockhart.
"I don't understand why you had to leave Austin to find a cross in an 'inappropriate' place," Jackson said via email. "You had to look no further than your Austin flag. Why don't you write a column on that? Austin needs to get its house in PC order before you take on distant places."
I'm not sure I consider Lockhart a distant place, but reader Jackson has a good idea. And, after looking into it, it turns out it's worse than he thinks. The city of Austin, tribal home of diversity, displays the familiar cross of Christianity on its flag, its City Hall, its utility bills and pretty much its everything. Except its police cars. (Conspiracy theorists might want to stick around to hear about that anomaly.)
Is a cross on government property politically correct? Nope. Somebody should take the city to court. Somebody did, and not just some random somebody but a somebody who used to make a Big Deal of things like this until he was murdered, chopped up and disposed of with his mom and her granddaughter on a remote ranch 90 miles west of San Antonio.
The bottom line here is that the city of Austin flag indeed has a cross on it. It's a tiny cross, above the lamp, between the wings and in front of the Capitol.
Back in 1915, A.P. Wooldridge, then-mayor of then-flagless Austin, appointed a 38-member committee to study whether the city should have a flag. Sure, the committee said.
By way of guidance, the city listed "typical characteristics of the city ... (that) may be used at the discretion of the designer." Included were "The natural beauty of Austin, the City of the Violet Crown, the lake and dam, the capital of the state, the dome of the Capitol and Austinites cursing in traffic." OK, I made up that last one.
But this one really was suggested: "the use of the coat of arms of Stephen F. Austin."
The city also included "illustrations of some of the subjects mentioned." One was the "coat of arms and crest of Stephen F. Austin, as well as the committee could determine." The coat of arms included a deer head, a pair of wings and a cross.
A third committee (God bless committees) was anointed to judge the entries, From over 100, the one submitted by Roy F. Coyle of San Francisco was picked as winner of the $50 first prize. Second place and $25 went to G.A. Geist, a Texas A&M faculty member. (I'm offering $25 to anybody who can produce Geist's second-place entry.)
Coyle's winning design included the cross and wings found on the coat of arms of Stephen F. Austin, who, we later learned, put it there because he had an ancestor who fought in one or the other of the crusades. (The deer head didn't make it to the flag.)
So that's how a cross came to be on our city flag. And a federal appellate court is why it's still there.
"In 1991, a citizen identified as 'Murray' sued the city, protesting the use of the Christian cross on the crest as violating the separation of church and state mandated by the U.S. Constitution," John M. Purcell wrote in "American City Flags: 15 Flags From Akron to Yonkers" in a 2003 issue of "Raven," the journal of vexillology produced by the American Vexillological Association.
The "citizen identified as 'Murray" was the now-late Jon Garth Murray, the second son of Austin atheist firebrand Madalyn Murray O'Hair, also now late. Both were murdered in 1995. But that's a tale for another day. See if "The Most Hated Woman in America" is still available on Netflix. Bad movie, interesting story.
Jon Garth Murray and the Society of Separationists went to court to complain about the small cross that appeared on city property, utility bills, etc. A district court ruled against him, as did the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in a 1991 decision that detailed the history.
"The original Austin family coat of arms was a crest with three cross-crosslets and wreath, supporting a Latin cross between two wings," the court wrote, noting that "A Latin Cross is the symbol of the Christian religion" and "in the coat of arms signified that a progenitor had participated in a crusade."
"For its insignia," the court wrote, "the city has used an adaptation of Stephen F. Austin's coat of arms." (Sans deer head.)
"The insignia is used on police cars and other city vehicles, letterhead, monthly utility bills, uniforms of city employees, including police and firefighters, on the wall of the city council chambers and on or in many city-owned buildings, parks and recreation centers," the court noted. (FYI, that info was current as of 1991. The current council chamber doesn't have the insignia on the wall but it is on a flag behind the council dais.)
Murray complained in his lawsuit that the cross "truly offends" him and amounts to government endorsement of Christianity. "Although the cross is included in the insignia because it was part of Stephen F. Austin's coat of arms, it is a Christian cross nonetheless," the court wrote, adding First Amendment issues cannot be ignored "simply because the cross was not placed in the insignia for religious purposes."
"It was in the original coat of arms to denote that an ancestor had participated in a crusade. But of far more significance, anyone seeing the insignia sees a Christian cross," the court wrote. "We cannot expect persons viewing it to have researched its origin beforehand, any more than we can expect the city to include a disclaimer with it."
So the cross had to go, right? Wrong.
"If we need ask only if the city's insignia, as a whole, has the principal or primary effect of advancing or inhibiting religion, the answer must be no," the court concluded. "Taken as a whole, the insignia has the principal or primary effect of identifying city activity and property and promoting Austin's unique role and history."
"Simply put," the court simply ruled, "we do not find that Austin's insignia demonstrates a preference for Christianity."
So, because Stephen F. Austin had an ancestor who crusaded, the city of Austin has tiny crosses all over the place. And the courts have said it's OK.
The courts also would be a good place to determine whether the crosses in Caldwell County District Clerk Tina Morgan Freeman's office are OK.
Addendum: The Austin Police Department has its own seal, one that differs from the city seal. The police seal incorporates a small version of the official city seal that has the cross. But the version of the city seal on the police seal on police vehicles doesn't have the cross.
Hmm. And there's more. An earlier version of the patch worn by Austin police included the city seal with cross. The current version does not have the city seal, hence no cross. The police badge, however, does include the city seal with cross.
City spokesman Andy Tate couldn't pinpoint when the police patch was redesigned. "Neither are we able at this time to explain why the graphic on the side of police vehicles appears to exclude the cross from the city seal," he told me.
Ken Herman is a columnist for the Austin American-Statesman. Email: kherman(at)statesman.com.
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