The 12-foot-tall “WORSHIP” cross that has stood for a half-century near a busy Route 28 intersection in Middleborough has become the center of a debate over the separation of church and state.
Last year, an unnamed Boston lawyer driving through town was bothered enough by the brick cross to complain to the state Department of Transportation. That agency, along with Plymouth County, town officials recently learned, owns the grassy triangle on which the cross stands.
Attorneys with the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts have urged the town to take down the Christian symbol, or at least move it to privately owned land.
Officials and others maintain that erecting the cross was a nondenominational effort that hurts no one.
The issue will be addressed on Oct. 7, when voters at a Special Town Meeting will be asked to take the small parcel from the state and county, then hand it — and the cross — to the Kiwanis for upkeep.
“Many members of the community expressed an interest in preserving the cross in its current location, which is why we are spending a little time on it,” Town Manager Charles Cristello said.
Selectmen will hold a public hearing next Monday on that and other issues that are on the Oct. 7 warrant. Kiwanis officials have said they would welcome taking over the site and intend to restore the cross and provide a facelift to its plot.
The cross was raised by Kiwanians in 1959 in collaboration with the local Unitarian Universalist Church, according to accounts in the Middleborough Gazette. It was designed by Kiwanis member Burt Andrews, former owner of the Stiles and Hart Brick Co. in Bridgewater.
The project was meant to bring people together in a sort of universal call to worship, and, possibly, to become a nationwide model, the newspaper said. But in the end, the cross became a memorial to the Unitarian church’s pastor, Francis C. Schlater, a Kiwanis chaplain who had headed up the effort to build the cross but died before it was dedicated.
A plaque originally attached to the structure’s base said it was the Kiwanis Club’s goal to “humbly” support churches of the area, and, according to the local newspaper, to express that idea to all faiths so that the word “worship” would “call attention to all that they may be reverent in their own way.”
The cross was dedicated on April 24, 1960, according to the Gazette.
Burt Andrews’ son, Lincoln Andrews, the brick company’s current president, and a former selectman and Planning Board chairman, said the cross was always meant to be nondenominational, and his father’s design is still an amazing feat of engineering that was achieved with help from a national industry association.
“He was never trying to proselytize,’’ Andrews said. “My father was a very modest man, and this was one of the few things that I saw him take a real sense of pride in.”
The real unsung hero is the mason who took his father’s design and put the cross together, Andrews said, laying brick over a framework of steel I-beams.
In the decades since, people of all persuasions have probably drawn some hope in hard times after driving by the cross and its simple message of support, he said.
Which makes the “drive-by” determination of someone who doesn’t live or work in the town all the more frustrating, Andrews said: “It’s a bunch of hullaballoo about nothing.’’
A spokeswoman for the Department of Transportation said the state doesn’t expect any problems in transferring the roughly 160-square-foot parcel at no cost. The town also has asked the Plymouth County commissioners for permission to transfer the land.
But that won’t resolve the objections raised by Sarah Wunsch, an attorney for the ACLU of Massachusetts.
By proposing to give the traffic island to the Kiwanis Club, Middleborough seems to be latching on to a gimmick to assist in the promotion of a religious message, she said
“That raises significant questions about whether this move to give the land to the Kiwanis Club would violate the US Constitution,’’ she said.
Giving land to a private group and receiving nothing back of equivalent value also raises First Amendment questions, she said, along with concerns about the “Anti-Aid Amendment” of the state Constitution, which precludes efforts to assist with religious undertakings on public land.
“We hope town officials and Town Meeting will avoid embroiling the town in a dispute over this and take steps to simply give the cross back to the Kiwanis Club and have it display it on private property,’’ Wunsch said. “There is too great a need to fund things like schools and public safety, and taxpayer dollars should not be wasted.”
Middleborough’s unofficial stance is that it appreciates the importance of separation of church and state, said Selectman Allin Frawley, but townspeople see the cross as historical, not religious.
“I don’t think it offends anyone in the town,’’ he said.
There is a level of frustration, though, Frawley admitted, especially toward the person who created the stir.
“I believe the term is ‘Get a life,’ ” he said. “He stirred things up, and then he left,” causing the town to waste considerable time and money.