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Cross removed from Mecklenburg County playground after Charlotte mom’s email

A girl plays on the children's playground at Park Road Park around a replica of a general store with a red cross emblazoned on the front on Monday. The county removed the cross when a Charlotte mother said she found it ostracizing and offensive.
A girl plays on the children's playground at Park Road Park around a replica of a general store with a red cross emblazoned on the front on Monday. The county removed the cross when a Charlotte mother said she found it ostracizing and offensive. ogaines@charlotteobserver.com

Mecklenburg County on Monday removed a plastic red cross from a piece of playground equipment after a Charlotte mother said she felt offended by the Christian symbol at a public park.

County parks and recreation director Jim Garges said including a cross on the replica of an old-styled general store at Park Road Park was “simply an oversight” and taking it off was the right move.

“It’s public property; you have to be respectful of everybody’s views,” he said. “We would not have designed it in there intentionally. Taking the cross down was the appropriate thing to do.”

Taking the cross down was the appropriate thing to do.

Jim Garges, Mecklenburg County parks and recreation director

On Sunday, Bonnie Kunkel emailed parks and recreation officials and Commissioner Matthew Ridenhour, saying she was at first thrilled to see the park’s new playground when she took her daughters there. She soon became “shocked and saddened” by the cross on the standalone piece of equipment, near a picnic shelter and sandbox.

On the front is a sign that identifies the replica as a Charlotte general store. Until Monday, a red cross was next to it.

I do not wish to feel ostracized (and) intimidated by religious symbols at a public park.

Bonnie Kunkel in email to county officials

“We are not Christians but we are tax-paying citizens of Charlotte,” Kunkel, who is Jewish, wrote in her email. “I do not wish to feel ostracized (and) intimidated by religious symbols at a public park.”

She asked officials to remove it.

“It made me uncomfortable,” Kunkel told the Observer on Monday. “I just felt like it was completely inappropriate.”

The park’s playground debuted last year with a tribute to teachers and students killed in Newtown, Conn., during the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. Part of that remodeling included new slides, a new jungle gym and the model general store, cross included.

Garges, the parks and recreation director, said the playground was custom-designed with students from Pinewood Elementary School who might have tried creating a “little town scene.”

The government ... should not be making some Charlotteans feel like second-class citizens, especially children.

Chris Brook, legal director for the ACLU of North Carolina

Intentions aside, Kunkel said the symbol made it seem as if “this is a Christian park and I shouldn’t feel that way at a public park, paid for with taxpayer money.”

“The government should be inclusive of people of all faiths ... and should not be making some Charlotteans feel like second-class citizens, especially children,” said Chris Brook, legal director for the ACLU of North Carolina. “I think it’s particularly a matter of concern when you’re sending that sort of message to children.”

... If we had a little more religion and morality in our world, maybe we wouldn’t have these tragic school shootings.

Mecklenburg County Commissioner Matthew Ridenhour

Republican Commissioner Bill James said the equipment to be a “historically accurate,” depiction of how old-fashioned general stores looked long ago. And Ridenhour, also a Republican, said the “county doesn’t intend to offend any residents” but added the cross is “a piece of plastic on another piece of plastic.”

“I understand (Kunkel’s) perspective but, I would also add, if we had a little more religion and morality in our world, maybe we wouldn’t have these tragic school shootings,” he said.

Jonathan McFadden: 704-358-6045, @JmcfaddenObsGov

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