A controversial, decades-old cross on a traffic island in Middleborough has a new lease on life following a spirited Town Meeting vote last week that allows local officials to work on a plan to save the display.
The 12-foot-by-7-foot brick icon has stood on a grassy triangle on Route 28 by what is now Dave’s Diner since 1959, when the local Kiwanis Club and a handful of churches raised it as a sort of universal, nondenominational call to worship. While some consider it an important local landmark, many others had hardly noticed its presence.
That changed last year when a Boston lawyer driving through town became offended at the overt religious symbol and phoned in a complaint to the state Department of Transportation, which owns a portion of the land. Plymouth County owns the rest of it, town officials learned during research.
At Monday’s Special Town Meeting, residents approved a plan to take the pair of small parcels as gifts from both government agencies and cede them to a group like the Kiwanis Club for private ownership and upkeep.
The decision was made following much debate. Weston Avenue resident Jeff Stevens vehemently objected to the move, stating repeatedly that no one needs the almost-promised court wrangle that would result over the issue of separation of church and state. The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts has also weighed in and is watching the town closely, he said. Recently, an ACLU lawyer told the Globe that the land deal could violate both the US and state constitutions if it goes through.
Stevens, a member of the town’s First Unitarian Universalist Society, has proposed moving the structure to private land and asked voters Monday to postpone indefinitely any action on the land transfer. If not, he said, “it will open up our town to a number of legal actions. I don’t think we can close our eyes to those realities. This is a state and national issue.”
In the run-up to Town Meeting, ACLU attorney Sarah Wunsch said the town’s proposal to give the traffic island to the Kiwanis Club seemed to be a “gimmick” to assist in the promotion of a religious message. 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. Wunsch said she hoped town officials and Town Meeting would avoid embroiling the town in a dispute over the matter and simply take steps to give the cross back to the Kiwanis Club for display on private property.
Kiwanis Club president Bob Kinney countered at Town Meeting, however, that moving the cross would destroy it. Even if it could be transplanted somewhere else, it opens up another issue of where, he said. “I fully expect that we will step up and take responsibility for the cross,’’ Kinney said. “And if the Kiwanis didn’t, I would start a private foundation to do it.”
Planning Board member Adam Carbone said the vote was about taking the land into custody so as to be able to work on a plan to either sell it, or transfer it, to another owner.
“This motion is not opening the town up to anything,’’ he said. Rather, it authorizes officials to take proper legal action.
Voters agreed resoundingly, 228-10, to allow selectmen to move forward, following the voting with loud, spontaneous applause.
Monday’s vote was the second time in a year that the town has tackled a difficult decision involving a religious matter.
Town Meeting voters recently authorized local officials to use Community Preservation Act funding to preserve an old organ in a religious hall. That organ, ironically, belongs to the same Unitarian Universalist organization in Middleborough Center that originally proposed the cross project in 1959.
According to accounts in the Middleborough Gazette at the time, the cross emblazoned with the white block letters “WORSHIP” was intended to bring people together, but in the end became a memorial to the Unitarian church’s pastor, Francis C. Schlater, a Kiwanis chaplain who had headed up the building effort but died before it was dedicated.
The design was offered by Stiles and Hart Brick Co. owner Burt Andrews, who worked with a national industry association on the format of brick laid over a framework of steel I-beams. His son, Lincoln Andrews, now the Bridgewater-based company’s president, said many motorists have drawn comfort from the display over the decades as they drove by it.
Andrews, a former Middleborough selectman and Planning Board chairman, said he had never before heard Town Meeting threatened until Stevens’s remarks.
“If all the problems Jeff Stevens predicted [for the cross] rain down on Middleborough, then at that time we can take a wrecking ball to it,” he said.
Andrews said he was glad to see residents standing “shoulder to shoulder” with selectmen to find the best result to a local issue.
Stepping up to the microphone after Andrews spoke, Stevens denied he was threatening anyone.
On Wednesday, Town Manager Charles Cristello said it was still unclear whether the town will sell or transfer the land to the Kiwanis. He said that will be decided as plans move forward.