By James Beaty
After listening to a series of impassioned statements from local and area residents on Tuesday night, the McAlester City Council avoided making a decision on whether to reinstall several silhouetted figures — which depict scenes including a cross — atop street signs in the city.
In the end, the council decided to wait until more information is available regarding possible legal issues before making a decision.
Approximately 45 individuals jammed into the Council Chambers at City Hall for the city council’s regular Tuesday night meeting.
More stood in the lobby and others still stood on the sidewalks outside City Hall, apparently deciding not to try and enter the crowded Council Chambers.
A number of them held signs with a drawing of Jesus Christ on the cross, along with a Bible and lettering stating “This Cross Proudly Displayed. Our Government Can’t Take This Down.”
Many of those inside City Hall were there because of an agenda item calling for discussion and possible action on a resolution put forth by the Gaines Creek Association of Free Will Baptists, opposing the removal of the figurines in question.
Before the council heard from the citizens, McAlester City Manager Pete Stasiak outlined how the matter became an issue.
He told how the city has worked with Bob Wallace on several projects in recent years, including improvements to the city’s skateboard park.
“He’s the brains behind the buffaloes,” Stasiak said, referring to the sculptures of buffaloes at various points in the city.
“Over a year ago, Mr. Wallace came to me the idea of putting silhouettes on street signs” Stasiak said, with each of the silhouettes having different designs.
After conducting some tests to make sure they could withstand winds, city crews attached the silhouettes to signs across various parts of the city.
Shortly afterwards, he received a phone call with a complaint about the city displaying the sign of the cross, Stasiak said.
The city manager said he conferred with the city attorney, then had several signs with the crosses removed.
City Attorney Bill Ervin referred to the silhouettes with the crosses in question.
“It’s a clear violation of the establishment clause of the U. S. Constitution,” Ervin said.
“In our opinion it would be a clear violation of law for the council to put those signs up.” He said the action could open the council as well as individual members to questions of liability.
James Prince, chairman of the executive board of the Gaines Creek Association of Free Will Baptists, is among those opposing removal of the figures with the crosses and was the first to address the council.
Prince said he’d received “hundreds of phone calls” about the matter, and had been stopped on the street many times. He said he’d encouraged those with whom he talked to tell friends about the matter.
“I also recognize the thousands who are praying right now,” Prince said, saying many had planned to pray as the meeting was under way.
Saying how those who were present on the issue were all united, Prince said they were there “to call on the council to reverse the decision of the city manager.”
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