City of Hawkins to sue church for land where 'Jesus sign' sits

Published on Tuesday, 8 December 2015 20:41 - Written by Gerardo Martinez and Emily Guevara

The city of Hawkins voted to sue the church that purchased the land where the controversial “Jesus Welcomes You To Hawkins” sign stands.

Council members voted Tuesday to sue the Jesus Christ Open Altar Church, LLC, which recently bought the land from two funeral homes. In purchasing the land the sign sits on, the church planned to keep the Jesus sign in place.

Hawkins City Attorney Alvin Flynn said the city contends it owns the property in question, and the funeral homes did not have rights to sell it to the church. Flynn said the funeral homes also will be included in the suit.

Flynn said that not suing the church could open up the city to more costly litigation.

“If we didn’t do anything, we’re still subject to being sued by the (Freedom From Religion Foundation) … because we are the ones that allowed that sign to be placed on the street in 2011 …” Flynn said. “I’m trying to protect my client from further litigation.”

In June, the Freedom From Religion Foundation threatened the city with a lawsuit, because it said the Jesus sign is on public city property and therefore unconstitutional because the government cannot endorse religion over non-religion or one type of religion over another.

In September, Hawkins City Council members voted to remove the sign to avoid a lawsuit from the foundation.

Almost immediately after that vote, the Jesus Christ Open Altar Church essentially took control of the site where the sign sits, Flynn said.

Church members cordoned it off with tape and had people out there at all hours of the day and night for a long time, he said.

Flynn said he didn’t feel it was in the city’s best interest at the time to go in and take down the sign because of high emotion on both sides of the issue.

At the time a church leader had indicated the church had a contract to buy the property, Flynn said, so he decided to wait until the prospective transaction closed to take action. Flynn added that the church’s actions would let Flynn and the council know how to proceed.

The sale to the church involved the execution of two deeds, one of which Flynn said was a valid transaction and the other which he said wasn’t.

The disputed land is an estimated 50 feet long by at least 45 feet wide. It was originally platted to be Ash Street, but the city never developed it. It sits between U.S. Highway 80 (Front Street) and East Blackbourn Street, which also is known as Old Highway 80.

In the mid-1990s, the city went through a process to abandon a portion of Ash Street north of East Blackbourn Street, but that portion did not include the property in question, Flynn said.

Because of this, Flynn says the Jesus Christ Open Altar Church acquired nothing in their purchase of the land from two funeral homes, because these funerals homes don’t own the land, Flynn said.

Hawkins Mayor Will Rogers said he disagrees with the decision to sue the church and questioned why the city would even want the land or want to open itself up to owning it.

“These people bought this property,” Rogers said. “They paid for it. I see a deed, and that’s what I have to go by as the mayor.”

Flynn said he expects to file the lawsuit as soon as possible, and he is confident the facts will show no funeral home has ever owned the land in question.

“I think this is the only way we can get this matter resolved,” he said.

If a judge does rule in the city's favor, Flynn said he anticipates the city will move forward with removing the “Jesus Welcomes You to Hawkins” sign as the council voted to do in September.