60-foot cross ignites soul searching

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Dan Plutchak
Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The controversy ignited over a proposal by New Life Assembly of God to build a 60-foot cross on its property began to smolder as quickly as the community got wind of the project.

Strong feelings aren’t new in Janesville, even for those not directly impacted. Just think of the long-running sidewalk controversy. Nearly everyone has an opinion, even if they already live in a neighborhood with sidewalks.

Word of the plan to construct the 60-foot lighted steel cross on church property first broke April 12 in a Gazette story.

The church, located at Wright Road and U.S. Highway 14 near the Pine Tree Plaza on the city’s northeast side, is perhaps most well known to those outside its congregation for the annual Freedom Fest the church puts on every Fourth of July.

The Rev. Michael Jackson, pastor at New Life, told the Gazette that parishioners consider the cross a “gift to the community,” and he hopes that in the future, the church would become known more for the cross than for annual free festival it puts on for the community.

The cross, which costs about $60,000, will be erected on the northwest corner of the property so it easily can be seen from the nearby Interstate.

Construction is set to begin Monday, and the project eventually will include a park-like area and 4,000-square-foot pavilion, Jackson told the Gazette.

News of the cross quickly caused a dustup in the comments section of the newspaper’s website, which eventually was closed.

In many ways, it looked like a NIMBY versus MYOB feud where the “not in my backyard” folks were going back and forth with the “mind your own business” folks.

The debate carried over to several other online forums, and tended to break down in this way:

Some critics said a structure that big would be an eyesore.

Others felt building such a large cross was an attempt by the church to impose its religious beliefs on others.

Still others are concerned over a federal law exemption that “prohibits zoning and landmarking laws that substantially burden the religious exercise of churches,” according to the U.S. Department of Justice website.

That means the church doesn’t need the typical permission from the city that private businesses or citizens would need.

But perhaps the biggest objection was that the $60,000 could better be spent elsewhere.

In an attempt to add some perspective, Stacy Maybee, business administrator at New Life Assembly of God, submitted a post to the Janesville Community Page, a Facebook page moderated by former city council member (and Messenger guest columnist) Yuri Rashkin.

Maybee said he wanted a chance to answer some questions and present some of the facts surrounding the plan.

He noted that the church pays more than $20,000 in property taxes a year, because only 10 acres is tax exempt. They also pay another $2,200 a year to the Janesville Water and Wastewater Utility for storm water runoff.

As for donating to charitable causes, Maybee says the church gave more than $112,000 to missionaries in the U.S. and oversees.

Closer to home, he said New Life also budgets $10,000 per year to bus children in from the Old Fourth Ward on Saturdays to feed them and play age-appropriate games.

Maybee notes that Freedom Fest costs about $100,000 to put on, and it receives support from dozens of businesses in Janesville as well as church members who give both money and many hours of their time.

New Life also has a food pantry that served several hundred families in Janesville last year.

Funding for the cross has not come out of the general fund, according to Maybee, with all the money coming above and beyond the normal “tithes and offerings.”

Should a private organization be able to spend its money the way its members please? Most would likely say yes -- in theory.

“New Life exists to make the Janesville area Christ conscious,” Maybee wrote. “What better way than to point people to the cross.”

By sparking a controversy however, the church certainly accomplished that part of its goal.

Dan Plutchak is an associate editor for CSI Media, publisher of the Janesville Messenger, Walworth County Sunday and the Stateline News.

Last updated: 8:46 am Wednesday, July 10, 2013

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