Sunday, April 3, 2016

Holy Water in Broken Arrow


When driving down the Broken Arrow Expressway through Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, it is hard to miss the giant city-owned water tower that sits adjacent to the expressway. This immense one-million gallon water tower looms over the expressway, bearing the words "First Baptist Church Broken Arrow". The label was put on the water tower as a deal between the First Baptist Church Broken Arrow and the City of Broken Arrow. The criteria of the deal reached between the two was that if the church donated the land to the City of Broken Arrow, then the city would, in return, paint the name of the First Baptist Church Broken Arrow onto the water tower as acknowledgment of the church's generous donation to the city. A pastor of the First Baptist Church Broken Arrow claimed that the deal was a fair trade because "...this deal provided water for the community and water for our church and water for a whole new area of the city to develop,". However, not everyone viewed this donation with such esteem.

Citizen Andrew Seidel, along with the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF), sent a letter to the City of Broken Arrow, requesting that the label be taken off of the water tower. Seidel and the FFRF believe that since the church donated the land to the city, that the land and water tower are now government property and there should not be religious advertisements on government owned property. Seidel believes that the sign on the government owned water tower is clearly a violation of the First Amendment because the city is promoting the Baptist religion. Seidel argues that, "the government can't promote one religion or church over another, or religion over non-religion,".

Despite these accusations, the city of Broken Arrow declined Seidel and FFRF's request to have the sign taken off of the water tower. City attorney, Beth Anne Wilkening, stated that the sign on the water tower, "wasn't intended to endorse any sort of religion; it was simply to recognize [the First Baptist Church Broken Arrow] for the land contribution. It was a contract". Is Seidel right, and the sign on the Broken Arrow water tower an expression of government endorsement of religion? Or is the sign a purely neutral form of acknowledgment for the donation that the church contributed to the city?


I find myself siding with Seidel and the FFRF when it comes to this case. I understand that the only reason the sign is on the water tower is because the church donated the land for the water tower, and they requested that they receive recognition for their donation by having their name be put onto the water tower. However, I feel that the city should not have agreed to the terms of this donation. The city could have placed a plaque on the water tower that would acknowledge the donation given by the First Baptist Church Broken Arrow. The colossal sign on the water tower that is clearly visible from the expressway acts almost like a billboard advertising the Baptist Church. I agree with Seidel's statement that the state cannot promote one religion over another or promote religion over non-religion. By allowing the sign to stay on the water tower, without making any attempts to renegotiate the original terms of the deal with Baptist Church, I believe that the city of Broken Arrow is favoring the First Baptist Church of Broken Arrow over non-religion as well as other religions present within the city.

8 comments:

Sarah A said...

I agree with your logic. There are definitely other ways the government could have honored the church for their donation instead of putting their name on the water tower. The church's name out of context on the water tower gives no indication that anything besides endorsement is happening. This reminds me of the case Natalie wrote about where a construction worker was honored with a cross on government property- in both cases, the church is being honored, out of context, on government property.

Jim R said...

I also agree with Kiriko's ruling. This represents a situation where the government and the religious spheres are entangled. The water is a public good for the citizens of Broken Arrow to enjoy. A contract is seen as a financial burden on both the city and the church to uphold their end of the agreement.

According to the Establishment Clause, no financial incentives or burdens must occur between the government and religion. Thomas Jefferson fought against this belief when Patrick Henry tried to propose taxes to various denominations. If passed, people who did not agree with the certain denominations, would be forced to support them. In addition, a government official doesn't have the authority to select which religions are acceptable.

Matthew L. said...

I agree with the thought process that by publicly displaying the church's name you are advertising for the church and therefore, by the church benefiting, a violation of the establishment clause. A question that I thought of as I was reading this article was if the church could have maintained possession of the land, and then constructed the water tower? If they could have, would it still be a violation of the establishment clause to let the church establish a contract with the town's utilities to allow public use of the water tower for a fee? The use of the water tower would then serve the purpose of making those of the town better off and allowing more access to water. However, then you enter the grey area where you must decide what is entanglement and if by using a secular company, you are advancing a religion?

Sedona Boyatzis said...

I agree with the above comments. I think this billboard-esque water tower is clearly unfairly promoting the First Baptist Church and, even further, the Baptist denomination. I think the preliminary creation of the "contract" between the church and the town of Broken Arrow was a violation of the establishment clause of the first amendment. There is no law requiring the town to develop any type of "trade" between the two parties. That could have manifested as, like Kiriko suggested, a small plaque at the base of the water tower. I think the church overstepped its boundaries and, as Jim stated, entangled itself and the government.

Maddie G said...

I agree with the rest of the commenters here. I recognize that the church donated the land, but placing their name in billboard-size font on the side of the water tower is a major advertisement for the church, which borders on an endorsement of religion. I think that this definitely serves to further religion, in general, and also a specific religion. The church can still be given some sort of recognition for its generosity, but the current display goes too far.

Richard Shin said...

Like the majority of the comments I also agree with Kiriko's statement. It is definitely recognizable of the generosity of the donation however the terms of the agreement should not have been accepted by the town. I feel that if a reasonable observer were to see the name of the church on the water tower they might assume that the town was endorsing that religion and from the First Amendment that is not unconstitutional. I feel the gratitude of the donation could have been shown another way instead of allowing everyone who passed by the highway seeing it.

Rosalie said...

I agree with Kiriko and the others above that the display was a clear violation of the Establishment clause and that the town should have never made the deal with the church in the first place. Additionally, I am not sure that churches and the government should be in any position to be making deals in the first place, because inherently, when the government does that, the government's end of deal itself will somehow benefit the church in return. This is the nature of bargaining. An expression of gratitude is completely different from the government using its resources to benefit the church.

Lucy Fishell said...

Although I see the point the comments above are making, I do not see the difference between this sign and signs put up by the government, on the sides of highways, that read "This highway is maintained by [insert religious sect here]". There are plenty of these signs across america, and they are open all groups who choose to donate money for highway maintenance. This being said, I personally find this deal problematic due to the fact that although facial neutral in principal, this act is probably not facially neutral in practice. However, based off past court cases we've read, I think that a court viewing this case would agree that the town is within their right to create this deal with the church.