The city of Hawkins has filed suit against Alter Church to determine who owns the land where the controversial Jesus sign resides.
The Hawkins City Council voted to sue Jesus Christ Open Altar Church LLC, which bought the land where the "Jesus Welcomes You To Hawkins" sign resides. Attorney Alvin Flynn, who represents the city, filed the lawsuit with Wood County in the 402nd District Court on Dec. 11.
Also named in the lawsuit are Beaty Funeral Home Inc. and Croley Funeral Home Inc., which sold the land to the church.
The suit claims the funeral homes did not have the legal right to sell the small parcel, because it is owned by the city.
"I don't think we have any choice but to do what we're doing," Flynn said. Number one the church doesn't own this property. The city has to exercise control and domain."
In September, the city council voted to remove the sign from the property after the Freedom From Religion Foundation took notice.
Though the city did begin proceedings to abandon part of Ash Street in the 1990s, that did not include the portion in question, Flynn said.
Earlier this year the city claimed it did not own the land. Flynn said that was an error.
"It was mentioned that based upon information that we had at that time, it did not appear that the city owned that property and we executed a title search and found that we did," Flynn said.
The church's attorneys sent a letter to the city sharing details from an independent land survey performed by KSA Engineers for Commercial Real Estate Law Richard E. Roberts requested by Open Altar. The survey disputes the claims the city owns the land and cites precedent established by similar cases. The letter also was sent to Mayor Pro Tem Wayne Kirkpatrick and city council member Norma Oglesby.
"I did want to make the point perfectly clear, we have a clear title," Mark McDonald, administrative director of Jesus Christ Open Altar Church said. "The city has never owned that property at all. At one time, 112 years ago, they had specific purpose easement, which is not ownership of property."
Flynn said the sale of the land has to be clarified in court to protect the city from a possible lawsuit from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, based out of Madison, Wisconsin.
"We're also looking at being sued in federal court and we need a clarification from a legal (standing)," Flynn said. "That doesn't get us out of the trap with the people from Wisconsin."
Flynn said the city still intends to take the sign down.
Sam Grover, an attorney with the FRFF, said the organization has not yet pursued legal action against the city of Hawkins.
"We're still very much interested with the ultimate outcome in the sign in Hawkins. We held off on any action because the city council was going to take the sign down," Grover said. "We don't have a current lawsuit going because the city has been very responsive and responsible to us, so we're going to see how (the land case) is hashed out."
Even if the city wins the lawsuit and reacquires the land, they could still face legal action.
"We would still pursue the sign in that instance, because the City Council originally ruled to put it up and endorsed it," Grover said. "The sign itself is still government speech and needs to be taken down."
In an earlier interview Grover indicated that the sale of the sign to a private party with the intention of moving it to private property would be amicable.
"A major thing you can note about this suit is to clear title. The city has never owned or deeded that land," McDonald said.
McDonald did not want to give further comment until the organization's attorneys have had the opportunity to respond to the lawsuit.
"I intend to fight this to the very end," McDonald said, adding he intends to appeal as many times as necessary should the court rule in the city's favor.