Jessamine County

Despite lawsuit threat, mayor says Wilmore will not remove cross from water tower

An atheist group, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, has asked the city of Wilmore to remove the cross on top of one of their water towers. The tower is located on the campus of Asbury University, a Christian school. Photo by Ron Garrison | Staff
An atheist group, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, has asked the city of Wilmore to remove the cross on top of one of their water towers. The tower is located on the campus of Asbury University, a Christian school. Photo by Ron Garrison | Staff Herald-Leader

The longtime mayor of Wilmore said Sunday that a lighted white cross that sits on top of the city's water tower will not be moved despite a legal threat by a Madison, Wisconsin, group that says the cross is unconstitutional.

"In nearly 40 years, no one has ever complained about this cross except this group from Madison," said Wilmore Mayor Harold Rainwater, who has been mayor of the Jessamine County town of about 6,000 almost that long. "It means a lot to us. It's important to our town. There's nothing that's drawn our town together more than the possibility of losing this cross."

On Sept. 29, lawyers with the Freedom From Religion Foundation sent Rainwater an email asking that the cross be removed from the water tower and that pictures of the water tower and cross be removed from Wilmore's official website.

"It is unlawful for Wilmore to display a patently religious symbol such as a Christian cross on public property," wrote Rebecca S. Markert, a staff attorney for the foundation. The group could not be reached for additional comment Sunday.

The email cites several federal court cases regarding the separation of church and state, adding that "a majority of federal courts has held displays of Latin crosses on public property to be an unconstitutional endorsement of religion."

In the email, Markert says the group successfully sued Whiteville, Tenn., in 2011 over a similar case. The Tennessee town had a large cross on its water tower that was also lit up at night. The case was settled for $20,000, with the town paying for the Freedom From Religion Foundation's legal fees. Whiteville also was sent a letter asking that the cross be removed, and a suit was filed after the letter was ignored, Markert wrote.

Rainwater said he had not yet received an official letter from the group.

"I'm not going to reply to an email," Rainwater said. "I'm not going to respond to a leftist, liberal foundation that wants to tell me in Wilmore what is appropriate."

Rainwater said that several lawyers from Lexington and the surrounding area have told him they will represent the city for free if the Freedom From Religious Foundation sues the city.

Wilmore's plight gained the attention of Franklin Graham, the son of evangelist Billy Graham. Franklin Graham posted about the Wilmore cross on his Facebook page Saturday: "These anti-god activists are trying to get their way against the will of the people. Let's pray that they get nowhere!"

Rainwater said that there are some key differences between the Wilmore cross and the Whiteville cross. The water tower sits on Asbury University property because the tower and the city's water and sewer infrastructure were constructed by the university. When the city took over the water and sewer system, it also took over the water tower. When Asbury transferred the ownership of the tower to the city nearly 45 years ago, Asbury stipulated that the cross remain.

"They have maintained it, and they have paid for its electricity for 45 years," Rainwater said.

Asbury University officials could not be reached for comment on Sunday.

In the Sept. 29 letter, Markert said the foundation is aware that the water tower sits on property owned by a private Christian college but "this is irrelevant," Markert wrote. "Any reasonable observer would understand the city to endorse any messages on the water tower because the water tower has 'WILMORE' printed on it in large letters."

It's not clear if the foundation knows that the cross was paid for and is currently maintained by Asbury.

Wilmore would not exist if Asbury were not founded there in 1890, said Rainwater, who is a professor at Asbury. Asbury and the cross are part of the town's history and its identity, he said.

"We literally call ourselves the city below the cross," Rainwater said.

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