City Attorney Claims Cross Constitutional

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Wednesday, September 5, 2012, 10:29 am
Alice Dreger

At last night's City Council meeting, city attorney Tom Yeadon informed the East Lansing City Council of his opinion that the giant cross on St. Anne Lofts is constitutional, in spite of large sums of public funds having gone into construction of the project. Following extensive research, citizen Eliot Singer shows documentation that over $3 million in public financing or tax incentives went into the approximately $7 million project. The $3 million figure is arrived at "between the $1 million grant to the city for environmental clean up of the site and the Michigan Business Tax credit and Brownfield Tax Capture Plan approved by MEDC in 2011." (See p. 2 here; see p. 9 here; see p. iii of the FY2013 preliminary budget here.)

Repeatedly raising the question of whether it really even is a Christian cross, Yeadon gave his opinion that it does not violate the establishment clause of the Constitution because the building is a private structure, because the public funds didn't specifically pay for the construction of the cross itself, and because the project's owner didn't let the city know there would even be a cross until very late in the process. According to Yeadon, the public "monies were approved before this feature ever appeared on the plans. So the determination of what to use money for was without knowing about this feature." (See the design the city was sold here.)

Councilmember Vic Loomis took issue with Yeadon's characterization of the public contribution. Loomis noted that substantial public monies went into demolition and preparation of the site, and asked, "How do you build a structure if you don't demolish what was there, and how do you build anything without site preparation work?" He asked how Yeadon could conclude that public funds didn't go into building the building on which the cross appears.

Yeadon conceded, "that's a fair point," but went on to add, "my opinion doesn't rest on that."

Yeadon's opinion was captured in a memo he provided to Council before the meeting, but Yeadon's memo did not appear in the packet provided to the citizens. I asked City Manager George Lahanas to provide a copy of Yeadon's opinion to the public, but as of press time, Yeadon's memo has yet to be released to the public. The cross was not mentioned on the Council agenda, nor was there anything in the public packet to indicate to citizens that the city attorney's ruling on the matter would occur at this meeting.

Update: The City has now released the memo.

Read more at the notes from Council here.

Correction: When first published, this article indicated that "Eliot Singer estimates that about $3 million of public subsidies went into the approximately $7 million project" (emphasis added). This has been corrected to read "Eliot Singer shows documentation that over $3 million in public financing or tax incentives" (etc.; emphasis added) with details and links now provided.

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