There were only six of them seated at the table, but they believe in the power of assembly.
Two of those gathered were state lawmakers: Rep. Lynn Morris, R-Nixa, and Speaker of the House Elijah Haahr, R-Springfield. The group met at Vineyard Market in Ozark to discuss the future of a controversial lighted cross display at Finley River Park in Ozark, and the possibility of using the cross controversy as the spark for a larger movement in Christian County.
Morris said he is working with the Christian County Agriculture and Mechanical Society, which owns the land where the cross display now stands, to determine the exact cost of electricity to power the blue display lights on a monthly basis.
“We’re going to find out how much it costs. We’re going to collect donations, and I’ll make a good-sized donation, we’ll make sure that cross stays lit 365,” Morris said.
Morris is organizing a group to pay to light the display in Ozark’s Finley River Park every night of the year.
On Nov. 30, 2018, the Madison, Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter to the city of Ozark asking that the city take down the cross display in the park.
“More than 1.2 million Missourians are nonreligious. By erecting a large Christian cross, Ozark is alienating a sizable number of Missourians and Americans,” FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor wrote in a letter to Ozark Mayor Rick Gardner.
On Dec. 11, Ozark city officials announced that the cross lights would be deactivated, under advice from City Attorney Amanda Callaway, as they examined a more permanent solution to the complaint.
About four hours later, they reversed course and agreed to keep the light display up and running through the end of the holiday season, citing a public outcry of calls, emails and messages from citizens.
It’s a decision that Morris applauded and continues to applaud, but he wants to display to be illuminated every night all year.
“This is something we said as we were protecting the cross. God is good, and we moved it to a private place and get to keep it up. There are a lot of people who wanted to keep that cross not just lit three or four weeks during Christmas, but lit 365,” Morris said.
The lands of Finley River Park are partially owned by the city of Ozark and partially owned by the Christian County Agriculture and Mechanical Society. The cross once stood at the north end of the park, on the city’s land. In early 2019, city employees moved the frame of the cross to a spot in the middle of the park near the saddle club arena, land that the A&M Society owns.
The holiday light park includes displays such as dinosaurs, soccer players, an American flag, a nativity scene and a gingerbread man flipping Village Inn pancakes. All of the displays are owned by the city of Ozark, though some are placed on the A&M society’s side of the park.
Morris wants his group to grow with more people beyond the original six who met at the Vineyard Market. He’d also like it to take on a second, and perhaps larger undertaking.
“We actually want Ozark and Christian County to be known as the city and ‘county of crosses,’” Morris said.
Morris said he is researching if any legislative action will be necessary at the state level in order for Ozark to be designated as Missouri’s official “city of crosses.” Haahr, the house speaker, said at the meeting in Ozark that he is unsure if such action would be necessary. Haahr cited an example of Springfield, which is known as “the Queen City of the Ozarks,” though there is not much in the way of official records for the moniker.
Morris said he has been in talks with business owners and property owners in Ozark about donation funds to light what he calls the “mother cross” at Finley River Park, and also about building and displaying crosses on their own property.
“We need to put up another 500 to 1,000 crosses. I don’t think that’s going to be very hard,” Morris said. “I think this would bring in tourists—buying food, and shopping and helping out our tourism industry in southwest Missouri.”
The Freedom from Religion Foundation criticized the decision to keep the cross illuminated during the holiday display at Finley River Park, but to date, has not pursued any legal action against Ozark.
“A majority of federal courts have held displays of Latin crosses on public property to be an unconstitutional endorsement of religion,” the Freedom From Religion Foundation wrote in its initial letter. “The display of this patently religious symbol on public property confers government endorsement of Christianity, a blatant violation of the Establishment Clause.”