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ACLU, Small Town Fight Over Symbol

May 26, 1998

REPUBLIC, Mo. (AP) _ John Parker, who has cut hair for 34 years in this town that prides itself on wholesomeness, smiled as he offered a solution for heading off a lawsuit over the city’s Christian fish symbol.

``They ought to just make it into a regular fish,″ Parker said as he gives a customer a trim in his barber shop on Main Avenue. ``Paint gills on it and put a hook in its mouth and be done with it.″

He figures that would not only keep the embattled fish on the city seal but would identify Republic as being right in the middle of a highly desirable fishing area.

Many hope it would also make the American Civil Liberties Union go away.

The idea says a lot about the local attitude toward what appears to be an inevitable legal clash between the ACLU and this town of about 8,000 that, once one ventures off the strip-mall-lined main highway to Main, appears largely unchanged by time.

Everyone who will talk about the fish _ and that’s just about everyone in Republic, which traces its roots to the 1850s _ seems to like the little symbol on the seal, which is imprinted on the city’s stationery, its Web page, its maintenance vehicles and the flag at City Hall. Or if they don’t like it, they bear it no ill will.

But when it comes to engaging in an expensive legal battle over it, well, that’s another matter. City officials say it would take $100,000 in legal costs to keep the fish.

``I’ve been here a long time and it’s no big deal to me either way,″ Parker said of the symbol. ``I don’t think it hurts anything being there. But I don’t think they need to be spending no hundred thousand dollars either.″

The money would be used to fight the ACLU of Kansas and Western Missouri, which voted earlier this month to take the city to court over the issue.

The fish, recognized for centuries as a symbol of Christianity, violates the constitutional separation of church and state, according to the ACLU, which has reported receiving complaints from Republic residents about it.

Gay Revi, of the ACLU’s Ozarks chapter in Springfield, said last week the lawsuit would be filed soon.

The ACLU decided to sue after city officials rejected its demand to remove the fish, instead asking residents to raise $100,000 to carry forth the fight. Paula Howell, who is heading the fund-raising efforts, said about $8,000 has been raised since mid-April, mainly through the sale of ``Save Republic″ T-shirts.

Though that’s not nearly enough, Howell said her group of about 10 volunteers can raise money if the case goes forward. She also said the American Center for Law and Justice, the Virginia Beach, Va.-based organization founded by the Rev. Pat Robertson, has indicated it might help the city fight the case.

In the meantime, residents and business people seem both annoyed by the ACLU and bewildered by all the fuss.

``I don’t think it’s a good thing that they’re trying to tell us what to do,″ said Jim Russell, owner of the Meat Locker butcher shop. ``But I’m not for the city using any tax money to fight them either. ...

``If it’s going to cost thousands of dollars, well, we’ve got better things to do than be paying lawyers.″

But Howell, who manages an accounting office, said the issue is too important to let go.

``Actually, I’m a very busy person and I don’t have time for this,″ she said. ``But after the first story broke I set aside the paper and said, `This is ridiculous.′ I felt it was time I did something. I just felt like it was time to take a stand.″

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