WILMORE — Nearly 200 people gathered Saturday to support keeping a cross on top of the city's water tower.
"I am proud to stand beneath the shadow of the cross, and to stand with you," said Dean Cook, retired pastor of Wilmore Free Methodist Church.
Those attending the rally prayed, took free wooden crosses to display in their yards, and sang along as a band played hymns, including The Old Rugged Cross.
"We have to stand up for our rights," said Nicholasville resident Carl Bruner. He accepted a free cross from Sheila Nagy, a Wilmore woman whose family distributed more than 400 homemade wooden crosses over the last week.
The rally was in response to the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Madison, Wis., organization that objects to the display of a cross atop the water tower. The organization, which bills itself as the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics and skeptics), has asked the city of Wilmore to remove the cross and remove a photo of the cross from the city website.
"Crosses belong on church steeples, not public water towers," foundation president Annie Laurie Gaylor said in a press release last week.
The organization said it has not received a formal, written reply from the city, but said it is "considering its options."
On Friday afternoon, no foundation legal staff was available to comment.
No lawsuit had been filed against Wilmore as of late Friday afternoon in U.S. District Court in Lexington or in the Jessamine Circuit Court Clerk's office.
Wilmore Mayor Harold Rainwater attended the rally but did not speak publicly to the crowd. He said he had been advised by legal counsel not to address the issue.
"I'm just grateful for the support and for this being positive," Rainwater said in a brief interview.
The water tower is on the property of Asbury University, a Christian liberal arts college, because the tower and the city's water and sewer infrastructure were built by the university. When the city took over the water and sewer system, it also took over the water tower. When Asbury transferred ownership of the tower to the city nearly 45 years ago, Asbury stipulated that the cross remain.
The university continues to maintain the cross and pays for the electricity that lights it at night.
Wilmore is also home to Asbury Theological Seminary, was the longtime home of Ichthus, a Christian music festival, and was known for a 125-year-old summer revival known as the Wilmore Camp Meeting, which ended this year.
"We're known as the city under the cross," said Nagy, the woman whose family distributed the wooden crosses. "You can't drive through Wilmore without seeing a church."
Saturday's rally was free of anger or harsh words. In his remarks to the crowd, Cook said, "We're not here to hate anybody. We're not here to demagogue anybody. We're not here to offend anybody."
"But at the same time," Cook prayed later, "we are grieved that some would want to take that symbol away from our little town. ... And so we pray for those, Lord, who have brought about this concern, and we ask that you would speak to their hearts, and that you would love them as well."
Harry Fogler III, a lawyer and Wilmore resident who attended the rally, said he is a Christian and, as such, "there's no symbol more important to me than the symbol of the cross."
But Fogler added, "it's pretty clear that a city can't own and display a religious symbol, A city government can't endorse a particular religion, even where most everybody in the city is an adherent to that religion. The Establishment Clause (of the First Amendment) has been interpreted to mean that the government can't do that.
"This protects all Americans, including non-Christians, but also Christianity," Fogler said. "As I've taught my son, I don't want the government to have the symbol of the sacred cross. The cross is the symbol of Jesus' love for the world, the symbol of His radical gospel. There's a real danger when the government can invoke this symbol in pursuit of its policies."
But those nuances don't fly with residents like Nagy.
"They may make us take down that one cross, but we're going to put up 400 more," she said.