Park construction work AE

A receiver well for the Christ Tree is under construction Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021, in the middle of Park between Grand and Independence.

ENID, Okla. — Enid City Commissioners didn’t take any action on downtown improvements for a Christmas program following a two-hour executive session closed to the public on Tuesday.

Officials also had no comment after the session on the city’s involvement with "The One," an event set for this Christmas season that a legal nonprofit says is likely a constitutional violation.

On Thursday, Christopher Line, a staff attorney for the Freedom From Religion Foundation, sent commissioners and Mayor George Pankonin a letter asking the city to cease any more infrastructure work and promotion related to the event.

Line said the city is using taxpayer funds for the event, including repairing sidewalks, installing bollards and digging a receiver well for a 140-foot-tall tree — being called the "Christ Tree" — and that is a clear violation of the First Amendment’s establishment clause, which holds that public entities such as governments cannot endorse one religion over another.

The letter requests written assurances that the city would cease the project.

"The One" is being organized, financially supported and promoted by a private group of area residents, families and sponsors, and is set to run for six weeks beginning Nov. 26.

Line said the Foundation had received “multiple” reports from Enid-area residents since late July’s announcement that "The One" was coming.

Line told the News & Eagle last week the downtown situation wasn’t as “clean cut” as some of the violations the FFRF deals with across the country.

He said FFRF receives between 3,000 to 5,000 complaints a year. The Foundation often is able to resolve more serious reports of violations by sending a letter to the public entity, such as a school board or government.

“We view litigation as a last resort,” Line said, adding that the foundation hopes to get records from the city.

“We’re doing our best to unravel that here,” he said. “But it also seems pretty clear that there’s something inappropriate going on here and possibly illegal with the way the city is expending huge amounts of taxpayer funds for this, not to mention endorsing this (event).”

Media representatives for the team planning "The One" did not respond to a request for comment.

As seen Tuesday, sidewalks and corner nodes have been repaired, and city-contracted workers are currently carving out a roughly 15-foot receiver well for the tree, which will be erected in the center of Park Avenue between Grand and Independence.

Beginning the night of "Enid Lights Up the Plains," after Thanksgiving, "The One" will feature numerous Christmas holiday events, including worship services, free concerts and dance recitals organized by churches, groups and individuals.

Events will run for 42 days around the 140-foot “Christ Tree."

With commissioner approval, the city has funded around $115,000 in infrastructure improvements, which are mostly complete. The city also will cover the electric bill for the tree lights after installing power lines in a nearby utility easement.

City Manager Jerald Gilbert said last week that he and City Attorney Carol Lahman also received the letter, and Gilbert said the city attorney was planning a response to it.

Local lawyers with First Amendment expertise also have questioned the city’s involvement.

Enid attorney Stephen Jones said a potential problem could be the city using taxpayer money to create what he called “a public platform” mainly intended for an obvious Christian message to be relayed around the Christ Tree.

Jones said he believes the Christmas tree itself would not be legally problematic for the city, but, “it’s the ‘Christmas tree-plus’ that brings this to the level where the city could be facing a challenge, legally.”

Citing the Establishment Clause, former Oklahoma law professor and attorney Rick Tepker, too, said Enid’s municipal government could create problems for itself by highlighting and emphasizing a religious purpose for the tree.

“If they cannot come up with a realistic, overriding secular purpose, they’re going to have problems,” said Tepker, who retired this year from teaching constitutional law at the University of Oklahoma’s College of Law. “There’s a ton of words in multiple Supreme Court decisions that suggest that kind of religious motivation is proof of an unconstitutional project.”

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Ewald is copy editor and city/education reporter for the Enid News & Eagle.

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