Atheist activist says state funds for Bald Knob Cross are unconstitutional

Tuesday, May 25, 2010
The interior structure of Bald Knob Cross is seen in this file photo. A group is raising money to replace the landmark's white tiles, but an activist says $25,000 the the sectarian group received from the state is unconstitutional.

ALTO PASS, Ill. -- A Chicago-area atheist activist today will ask the Friends of the Bald Knob Cross to return $25,000 in state and local tax money the group has received to restore the 111-foot Christian symbol.

Rob Sherman, a retired radio talk show host who successfully challenged Illinois' Moment of Silence law and is currently suing to block $2.3 billion in state spending for religious-oriented groups, said the state and local contributions violate the Illinois Constitution.

He will attend the monthly meeting of the Friends group at 7 p.m. today in the Alto Pass Civic Center, and request the money be returned. If members do not, Sherman said he will file a lawsuit to force the return of the money.

The cross is operated by a group that makes being a Christian a requirement for membership on its board of directors, Sherman noted. And the Illinois Constitution bars the legislature from granting money "for any sectarian purpose," he said.

"If this isn't unconstitutional, I don't know what is," he said.

The Friends of Bald Knob Cross is a group formed two years ago to raise money for the complete renovation of the cross. So far, the group has raised $375,000 of the estimated $550,000 needed for the job. Another group is responsible for taking care of the cross itself, the Bald Knob Cross of Peace.

The Friends intend to listen politely to Sherman but refuse to return the money, said the Rev. Bill Vandergraph, pastor of the Full Gospel Pentecostal Church in Alto Pass.

A repaired cross will be a big tourist draw and that justifies the use of state funds, Vandergraph said.

"This guy is a noted atheist, and he has no concerns about church and state," he said. "He is just against anything religious."

The renovations are well underway. Replacing the outside surface will begin soon, with granite and metal panels that cover the outside on their way, said cross of peace board president Steven McKeown. There is money on hand to install the granite panels but money must be raised to replace the white metal panels that cover most of the cross's surface.

Of the money being challenged, $20,000 came from an earmarked appropriation secured by Sen. Gary Forby, D-Benton, in 2008. The remainder is from Union County tourism funds.

The Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity oversees the funds. In a February letter about Sherman's challenge to the $2.3 billion, department director Warren Ribley wrote that he must spend money as directed by the legislature.

"We have to take into consideration that these grants were enacted by the legislature," said Marcelyn Love, a spokeswoman for the department.

rkeller@semissourian.com

388-3642

Pertinent address:

Bald Knob Cross of Peace, Alto Pass, IL

Map of pertinent addresses

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