Note: This story was written for The Dallas Morning News’ Texas & Southwest — Southwest Spotlight section.
By Dennis Whiteman
Special to The News
HOLY CITY OF THE WICHITAS, Okla. — Tucked away in the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge is a pink-granite replica of Jerusalem.
The mini-Jerusalem was built from the vision of the Rev. Mark Wallock, an Oklahoma minister who searched for years until he found a valley in the southwest part of the state that reminded him of the Holy Land.
There, with financial help from the federal government and the muscle of the Depression-era Works Progress Administration, Wallock’s vision was realized 22 miles northwest of Lawton in 1934.
This Easter thousands of Christians from throughout the United States gathered at the Holy City of the Wichitas to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
At times during the Holy City’s history, the Easter pageant has drawn up to 225,000 pilgrims.
It also has drawn attacks from atheists and civil-liberties groups.
The sunrise service was celebrated without protest for 46 years on the Holy City land, which is also one of the last buffalo reserves in the United States and which is still owned by the federal government.
But in 1980, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit — later dismissed — that sought removal of the Holy City’s seven buildings and the 23-foot-tall, 8,000-pound marble statue of Christ that dominates the site. Holy City, the suit said, was a violation of the constitutional doctrine of separation of church and state.
A year later — after the suit was dismissed — the ACLU planned an Easter morning demonstration, but it canceled the protest after the Ku Klux Klan announced that it would hold a counterdemonstration at Holy City.
In 1982, the Oklahoma Chapter of American Atheists asked the courts to be allowed to use the Holy City for its annual winter solstice celebration.
After the 1982 pageant, the Easter Pageant Association made an attempt to end the controversy by giving up its year-round exclusive rights to the 151-acre Holy City grounds.
The association signed a 10-year agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1982 that gives the Easter Pageant Association use of the Holy City grounds only for 60 days before and 30 days after Easter.
On Easter Sunday 1983, there were no threats of protests or demonstrations. But only 3,000 people attended the service.
Organizers said they were pleased by the calm and not worried by the attendance.
The civil libertarians also said they were happy by the arrangement. “The ACLU strongly supports the use of public lands by public groups, including religious groups,” said Shirley Barry, exec- utive director of the Oklahoma ACLU. “That was never at issue in the lawsuit.”
James Sanders, president of Oklahoma American Atheists, is not pleased. “It’s a dirty deal,” Sanders said of the agreement between the Easter association and the Fish and Wildlife Service. “I just feel like it’s Christianized…. They’re just playing with us. It’s not fair.”