The next step for the city of Hawkins and its controversial Jesus sign is unclear after a Wisconsin-based nonprofit said the sign itself is unconstitutional, despite the city’s claims the sign is on private property.
The sign, which reads “Jesus Welcomes You to Hawkins,” is along U.S. Highway 80, near the intersection with Blackbourn Street.
It has been at the center of a debate since June, when the Freedom From Religion Foundation sent the city a letter calling for the sign’s removal and stating it is unconstitutional because it sits on what the foundation said is city property and “conveys a government preference for religion over nonreligion, and prefers Christianity over other religions.”
In its latest letter, dated July 22, the foundation said regardless of who owns the land that the sign sits on — whether a private resident or a public entity — “the sign itself remains the property of the city of Hawkins” and therefore is unconstitutional and must be removed.
“It is illegal for the government to erect religious displays on private property, just as it is illegal to erect them on public property,” Sam Grover, a staff attorney at the foundation, wrote in the letter. “The city of Hawkins could not legally erect a cross in a privately-owned church. Nor can it erect a sign proclaiming ‘Jesus Welcomes You” on private property. The sign must be removed, regardless of who owns the land under it.”
Hawkins Mayor Will Rogers said in a previous interview that when the sign was installed four years ago, the city council supported the move and the chamber of commerce, local churches and many individual donors backed the effort to make it happen. The school’s shop class made the sign.
Rogers, who wasn’t serving on the council at the time, said he initiated the installation of the sign to replace another sign that was in disrepair.
The previous sign’s message was from an individual church welcoming people to the city.
Rogers said the sign does not belong to the city. Rather, it belongs to the community, which numbers about 1,300 people. Community members maintain the sign and decorate it. The city does not maintain or provide funding for the sign, he said. But the foundation isn’t buying that.
“The city cannot insulate itself from a constitutional violation by claiming that a city-owned sign, carrying a city-approved message, built by public school students and intended to be erected on city property is now outside of its control or responsibility,” Grover wrote in the letter.
The latest letter comes after the Hawkins City Council tabled decisions about the issue at its last two meetings.
Richard Roberts, a board certified real estate attorney in Quitman, said at the request of two Hawkins City Council members that he reviewed the plat showing the sign’s location.
Roberts said, based on the plat he reviewed, the city of Hawkins does not own the land the sign sits on.
The sign sits on land that was platted out to be Ash Street, but was undeveloped, according to a copy of the survey.
Rogers and the Croley Funeral Home own the property to the west and east of the sign, according to the survey.
Roberts said common law says that property owners adjacent to a street own the street to the centerline. In this case, that is the undeveloped land intended to be Ash Street.
Sometimes the entity developing a street buys the right-of-way, but if it doesn’t and just gets an easement — the right to build and maintain a road — the adjoining landowners retain ownership.
Roberts believes that to be the case in this situation, assuming the plat is accurate and there was no transfer of ownership unaccounted for in it.
Hawkins’ city attorney, Alvin Flynn, of Tyler, said the foundation is misstating facts to “arrive at their opinion that it’s unconstitutional on our part.”
Though he continues to investigate the background of the sign, Flynn said based on what he knows at this point in time, “we don’t think we’ve done anything to violate the (United States) Constitution or the First Amendment or the establishment clause.”
He said there’s no written documentation that he knows of that shows the city owns the sign, and records show the city doesn’t own the property.
Grover reiterated in an email that land ownership is not important.
“The results of the survey are a distraction from the real issue, which is that the city endorsed a religious sign in the first place and is now allowing that sign to remain standing,” he wrote in the email. “Who owns the land under the sign is irrelevant. The city cannot erect a religious display anywhere, public or private.”
Rogers previously said the city council unanimously approved the installation of the sign, but it is unclear if that vote was taken as perceived land owners or just in support of the community’s efforts.
Grover said if the city wants to sell the sign to a private party who would then move it to private property, that would be an acceptable solution.
“Every citizen, regardless of religious or nonreligious status, should be allowed to express themselves on their own property,” Grover wrote in the email. “They can even express themselves on public property, though they can’t erect permanent displays there. The real barrier to free religious expression is when the government prescribes what religion people should believe in, which is what Hawkins has done.”
The foundation asked the city to inform its representatives in writing as to when they can expect a response about the issue.