One man's cross sparks a neighborhood controversy

July 25, 2011 2:17:39 PM PDT
A homeowner put up a large cross in his front yard and officials initially told him to take it down.

The six-by-four foot cross on Patrick Racaniello's front lawn in Livingston, New Jersey was intended as a celebration of Lent, but it became much more than that.

It's legal now, after being moved twice to comply with local laws following neighbors' complaints.

"I live three houses up and I don't like having the cross staring right at me," said neighbor, Toni Tremarco.

Racaniello's first cross was hung on a tree in his yard, but a Livingston littering ordinance prohibited that. So he took it down and erected a much larger cross in front of his Sterling Drive home.

That one was less than ten feet from the curb, in Livingston's so-called 'right of way', so he backed it up, to where it now stands, legally, in his front yard.

Livingston's township attorney told Eyewitness News that she's worried about large displays distracting drivers.

"We are in no way keeping Mr. Racaniello from exercising his religion. The restrictions imposed on his intrusion into the municipal right- of -way are content neutral based upon a concern for public safety," the attorney said.

"I understand his point that there's freedom of expression and religion," said Brian Schlesinger, a neighbor.

The story isn't over yet. Racaniello contacted a group of Christian lawyers in Arizona called the 'Alliance Defense Fund.' They think Racaniello should be able to put a cross up anywhere on his property and they're prepared to sue to allow it.

Rutgers law professor and First Amendment expert Frank Askin isn't sure this case is worth making an issue over.

"I don't know why they'd argue over a few feet if he can move it back on his own property. Seems to me, it's a simple solution," Askin said.

Livingston is a religiously diverse town with many churches and synagogues. Its town budget is already stretched thin and officials are worried that they can't afford an expensive legal battle.

Livingston is standing by its right of way policy, but the township attorney will ask the council on Monday night, to amend the law to allow residents to hang signs on trees on their properties.