Cross display allowed on bluff

Published 12:06 am Wednesday, December 18, 2013

NATCHEZ — The Natchez Board of Aldermen unanimously voted Tuesday to allow a local pro-life group to place crosses on the bluff, following a swirl of controversy that has surrounded the issue the past three weeks.

Ward 5 Alderman Mark Fortenbery made the motion to allow Pro-Life Natchez-Adams County to display the crosses for its annual two-week abortion protest.

The group’s co-chair Virginia O’Beirne made the request at the board’s Nov. 26 meeting, which was then tabled after Mayor Butch Brown expressed the concerns of residents who do not believe the display is appropriate for the bluff and questioned the legality of such a display.

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Ward 1 Alderwoman Joyce Arceneaux-Mathis asked City Attorney Hyde Carby to explain the legality of the issue.

Carby told the board, as he did at its previous meeting, that the city is limited in its ability to restrict displays because they are protected under the First Amendment.

Mayor Butch Brown asked O’Beirne at the meeting before the vote more than once if she would consider shortening the length of the display to one week and/or moving it to another part of the bluff away from the gazebo as to not interfere with any weddings.

Brown said his request was in an effort to be conciliatory to those that disagree with the display.

O’Beirne said the group has in the past used the gazebos electrical hookups for sound equipment for the vigil they have during the display, which has been erected on the bluff for the past eight years. She also noted the cold and bleak weather this time of year, which is not ideal for weddings.

O’Beirne said the group had not considered moving the display, but had it at one point further down the bluff when the group placed 4,000 flags for the display.

As for shortening the time, O’Beirne said the group requested the two-week display period because it uses the help of other groups, such as the Boy Scouts and Knights of Columbus, to place the crosses on the bluff. It would be a lot of trouble, O’Beirne said, to put the crosses up and take them down in a week.

“And it’s after the Christmas decorations are down and before Mardi Gras, so we thought that would be (a good time),” she said. “But I suppose it’s possible.”

Brown said all he was trying to do is convey the concerns of other residents, and if another location on the bluff was not possible, perhaps a shorter display period was.

“All I’m suggesting is that there might be a way where everybody feels like they have spoken, and we’re trying to bring people together here; we’re not trying to separate them,” he said. “I’m the messenger, and please don’t shoot me.”

Fortenbery remained adamant about his motion, which he said was to allow the display for two weeks. He asked the mayor if there were any weddings scheduled during the two-week period, and Brown said he didn’t know.

“If not, (O’Beirne) has it for two weeks,” Fortenbery said. “That’s this board’s motion.”

Carby reminded anyone who wishes to put a display on public property to get a permit, which is required by the section of the city code that outlines codes needed for parades and displays.

Carby added that the code does not explicitly address the time period for displays, which may be something the board could add to the code if the aldermen deem it necessary.

Arceneaux-Mathis said her questions about the display arose only out of concern for the legalities of the issue.

“If it’s legal, I’m fine with whatever number of days anybody is down there doing anything we say is legal for them to do and we approve,” Arceneaux-Mathis said.