For four years, those who drove into a small town in Texas were greeted with a sign that said: "Jesus Welcomes You to Hawkins."
But overnight, after a lengthy court battle, the town abruptly took down the sign. City officials say it's on public land and in the way of future development.
The church that put up the sign is vowing to fight back.
The sign along U.S. 80 leading into the Hawkins, a Texas town with a little over 1,300 residents, was put up in 2015 in front of a Hawkins coffeehouse, on property owned by Jesus Christ Open Altar Church. Until it was taken down, members of the flock stood watch over the "Jesus" banner.
Church trustee Mark McDonald told the local news he was notified by the police of the removal.
“The city employees destroyed our church property, pulled up our crosses and destroyed everything,” McDonald told the Longview News-Journal Friday.
“We’re treating it like a hate crime of religious discrimination that was conspired by the city. We have enough documents to prove that,” McDonald added. “The city was warned (Thursday) by our attorneys not to touch it and not to bother it. There’s been closed meetings, closed records (and) a lot of things wrong.”
The city and church have had several legal battles over the property where the sign is located.
The church claims it bought the property from two funeral homes. City officials claim the funeral homes did not have a legal right to sell the property and that the rightful owner is the city.
After a four-year legal battle, the city abruptly took down the sign. Hawkins City Secretary Dona Jordan said a municipal street will be constructed at the site.
The church's legal counsel said it will challenge the decision and continue trying to get the "Jesus" sign back up.
The Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) had sent a letter to Hawkins years ago complaining about the sign.
“FFRF has made its living roaming around the country trying to bully government officials into purging religious symbols from the public square—exactly what the US Supreme Court said should not be done,” said Mike Berry, chief of staff to First Liberty Institute. “Just two weeks ago in The American Legion v. American Humanist Association the Court ruled that religious displays, even on public property, are presumptively constitutional. The church certainly can make a case if the City’s decision to take this sign down is out of religious hostility or a false belief that religious displays are not allowed.”