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Cross in group's crosshairs

April 23, 2012

The thorny constitutional principle of separation of church and state is rearing its head over this 1921 World War I monument featuring a prominent Christian cross on city property at Station 2 in Woonsocket. (photo/Ernest A. Brown)

WOONSOCKET – The thorny constitutional principle of separation of church and state is rearing its head over a 1921 World War I monument featuring a prominent Christian cross on city property.
Unlike the recent prayer banner controversy in Cranston, which was sued by the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, the threat of legal action in this case is coming from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national nonprofit organization halfway across the country.
On April 13, the Madison, Wisc.-based foundation sent Mayor Leo T. Fontaine a letter calling the display of the “Latin cross” on public property “unlawful” and demanding that the situation be rectified.
The monument is located in the parking lot of the Woonsocket Fire Department. But it’s not FFRF’s only problem with the WFD. The foundation says the image of an angel and the inclusion of “The Fire Fighter’s Prayer” on the department’s web site are also unconstitutional.
“It is unlawful for a city and its agencies to display patently religious symbols and messages on city property,” Rebecca S. Markert, a staff attorney for FFRF told the mayor. “Posting a prayer and a picture of an angel on a City website is a direct violation of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.”
Sprinkled with references to case law affirming the separation of religion and government, the warning has sparked outrage among veterans, city officials and many others in this overwhelmingly Roman Catholic enclave.
“We’ve gotten quite a few callers on it, and I have tell you, many of them are angry,” says Larry Poitras, host of a radio talk show on WNRI.
Markert said FFRF has over 17,500 members nationwide, including some in Rhode Island, and that she wrote the letter after the foundation was “made aware of these violations by a concerned Woonsocket resident” whom she did not identify.
Council President John F. Ward isn’t buying it. More likely, he says, FFRF routinely canvasses cities and towns around the country for opportunities to litigate potential violations of the so-called establishment clause of the constitution as a way to fatten its war chest. Often, he says, all such groups have to do is lodge a legal complaint to wheedle a settlement and legal fees out of their targets.
“It’s a jobs program for lawyers with nothing better to do,” says Ward. “I have serious doubts that someone actually reached out to them to file a complaint.”
Fontaine agrees.
“The monument’s been sitting there for 97 years and no one had a problem with it,” he says. “And now someone from Madison, Wisconsin is so concerned?”
In a phone interview, however, Markert denied the FFRF is on a treasure hunt. “The majority of these suits aren’t money-generators,” she said.
Markert declined to identify or describe the person who contacted FFRF, except to say the individual is a city resident. “They do come into contact with the monument every day and they are offended by it,” she said.
Whether the complaint ever morphs into a lawsuit depends on how the city responds and what the complainant wants to do about it, Markert said.
But city officials take the threat seriously. FFRF is a well-heeled organization whose track record proves it’s not bashful about backing up the tough talk with action. It’s taken on numerous high-profile legal battles over the church-state divide and has won many. It has a litigation fund that’s reportedly in the vicinity of $5.5 million and, by its own accounting, is presently pressing complaints in 11 states, including Pennsylvania, Colorado, Arizona, Montana, Tennessee, Virginia and others.
In Pennsylvania, for example, a suit is pending against a House of Representatives declaration that 2012 is “The Year of the Bible.”
Another in Montana seeks to block the U.S. Forestry Service from renewing a permit to keep a shrine to Jesus Christ in the Rockies. And in Arizona the group is suing Gov. Janice Brewer’s “Arizona Day of Prayer.”

IN WOONSOCKET, the main bone of contention is a monument erected in memory of William Jolicoeur, a member of the American Expeditionary Forces who was killed in France during World War I. Unveiled on Nov. 13, 1921, the monument was rededicated in May 1952 in honor of three brothers, Alexandre, Henri and Louis Gagne, all killed in World War II.
Historians and veterans regard the marker as a living link to Europe’s allies, especially France. At the close of World War I, Field Marshal Ferdinand Foch, the Supreme Commmander of the Allied Forces, a Frenchman often called Europe’s counterpart to General Dwight Eisenhower, traveled to Woonsocket to dedicate the stone. Historian Ray Bacon, co-director of the museum of work and culture, says the occasion was Foch’s opportunity to pay his respects to Americans who died in the Great War.
City residents repaid the tribute by naming Foch Avenue in honor of the French commander.
Bacon sees the cross as an echo of those that adorn the headstones of soldiers who are buried in the graveyards of Normandy. They’re less a religious symbol than a historical relic, and if self-proclaimed guardians of the constitution are going to call for their removal, they might as well do the same for all the crosses and other sectarian emblems that mark the graves of fallen soldiers in the national veterans cemetery in Arlington, Va., he says.
“Personally I think it’s an outrage they want to take down a cross put there in 1921 that has to do with soldiers who gave their lives to their country,” says Richard W. Schatz, president of the United Veterans Council of Woonsocket. “To me this is just another type of terrorist attack on this country.”
Schatz says “Christianity plays a big part in this country” and when “you start taking Christianity out of the country, that’s when you start to bring the country down.”
But anyone who’s expecting a big Cranston-style showdown over the monument is probably going to be disappointed.
FFRF is demanding that the city offer “a prompt response” regarding the steps it plans to take to resolve the constitutional issues, but Fontaine says he is still exploring the city’s options. He says he asked City Solicitor Joseph P. Carroll and lawyer Joseph Larisa for formal opinions on the city’s options.
“I have no intention of removing the cross under any circumstances,” said Fontaine.
If the city is backed into a legal corner, however, Fontaine said he may seek to relocate the cross to private property. Ward concurs with the plan, saying the city, which is on the verge of bankruptcy, simply cannot afford to get dragged into a costly legal battle over a principle. Ward agrees with Bacon’s view of the cross as historical relic, not religious symbol.
While he’s only one of seven votes on the City Council, Ward says, “I would not vote to pay to defend it.”
Still, some civic-minded residents would like to see a grassroots fundraising effort to save to cross at its existing location. Lorraine Corey, who runs a current events site on the web under the banner mywoonsocket.com, is one of those people.
“I’d like to fight the good fight,” she says.
The daughter of a late Woonsocket firefighter, Corey says she walked past the monument on a regular basis for many years while visiting her father at work. A few days ago she was looking for pictures to spice up her web site and settled on the idea of featuring some Woonsocket landmarks and monuments.
Naturally, the World War I monument at the fire station came to mind. When she began snapping photos of the marker, however, she was struck by how deteriorated it had become over the years and decided to launch a fundraising campaign to restore it. Ironically, the very same day, she was informed by Fire Chief Gary Lataille of the FFRF letter. The odd timing has prompted at least one person to blame her for lodging the complaint, but Corey says she had nothing to do with it, and is vehemently opposed to the removal of the cross.
“What happened to me would be the same odds as someone hitting the lottery,” she says. “God said, ‘You’re not hitting the lottery, but I’m going to give you this mess.’”
As for the image of an angel and the prayer cited in the FFRF letter, the fire chief says he has no plans of removing them from the WFD’s web site.
“I’m not going to take any action at this point,” Lataille said.

Comments

Cross Challange

May 6, 2012 by Old John (not verified), 2 years 12 weeks ago
Comment: 1259

The attack on one cross in Woonsocket is so wrong. Our fighting men and women have been protecting the right to practice the religion of their choice for years. This is not about separation of Church and State; but, a bully who wants to get his way at our expense! Arlington in Washington DC has more crosses and stars than can be counted. Add them to those in Europe and elswhere. Where will it stop? What is our country coming to?

colocation of serversHello, I

May 1, 2012 by cyber123 (not verified), 2 years 13 weeks ago
Comment: 1214

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OUR 'CROSS'

April 30, 2012 by paullym (not verified), 2 years 13 weeks ago
Comment: 1208

I just read someone's comments trying to connect the Rosa Parks story to OUR CROSS....????whattttt Seriously,if I here anyone else try to attach a story of a race issue to this, I will lose my lunch...hopefully on said person's feet.....also you have had 97 years to complain but only now do you speak....you seem to been unable to speak your own mind about OUR CROSS....you parrot you....how about a cracker..........

Rosa Parks vs. Cross in Woonsocket

May 1, 2012 by GodVlogger - on YouTube (not verified), 2 years 13 weeks ago
Comment: 1223

I didn't make the Rosa Parks comparison, but it is VALID in this sense:

The fact that a violation or illegal activity has been going on for a long time (over 90 years for the Woonsocket Cross) is ZERO reason why it should be let persist.

The comparison someone made was that it would be like telling Rosa Parks that she should have stayed in the back of the bus because that was how things had been done for years (as if that made it right).

The duration of the violation makes it all the more important to correct the violation.

I have posted a YouTube video specifically discussing this (titled "False Arguments: Woonsocket Cross Removal").

~~ GodVlogger (on YouTube)

Support of the cross

April 29, 2012 by alexismom (not verified), 2 years 13 weeks ago
Comment: 1204

I'm offended by FFRF - can we get rid of them?

You imply violence

April 30, 2012 by GodVlogger - on YouTube (not verified), 2 years 13 weeks ago
Comment: 1211

alexismom, you imply violence in your incitement to "ged rid of" FFRF.

FFRF are people. Humans. Neighbors. Citizens.

Getting rid of an ILLEGAL cross (a superstitious object that glorifies a TORTURE device) is NOT the same as getting rid of people.

Have we had enough yet

April 25, 2012 by Tired of all this (not verified), 2 years 14 weeks ago
Comment: 1171

Im not a religious person but I am sick and tired of atheist groups trouncing the religious beliefs and traditions of this country. They should be ashamed that they are using threats of expensive lawsuits to manipulate fragile municipalities. The fact is 98 percent of the population want the cross to stay or could care less. We are constantly trying to appease the small minority groups and this needs to stop. The fact that they are going after a war memorial is especially repulsive.

Cross

April 26, 2012 by mhall (not verified), 2 years 13 weeks ago
Comment: 1172

You are absolutely correct. My grandfather was in the Navy and an uncle in the Navy during WWII and an uncle in the Korean War and my dad was in the National Guard. They all lived in Woonsocket. I think they deserve honor and respect and veterans certainly deserve this memorial.

The cross is ILLEGAL

April 30, 2012 by GodVlogger - on YouTube (not verified), 2 years 13 weeks ago
Comment: 1210

You would want veterans in your family to be dishonored by an ILLEGAL cross?

Cross

April 25, 2012 by mhall (not verified), 2 years 14 weeks ago
Comment: 1170

I don't understand why people get offended by someone else's religion. We are not upset with you because you are an atheist or some other religion. If you want to put up a sign somewhere saying you don't agree with a religion that is your right by the Constitution. Why do you feel you have to wipe out all signs of other religions? Why do you feel threatened by it? Why does the objection of one person have to dictate what the rest of us must do?
Maybe you should learn tolerance of those who are not like you.
These men fought for our freedom. They deserve our respect and admiration. You are trying to make a mockery of something good.

Cross in Group's Crosshairs

April 25, 2012 by suburbansoliloquist (not verified), 2 years 14 weeks ago
Comment: 1168

Pagan origins of the cross have been cited in research (which can be found on many web sites). One example, from bible-research.org:
"The history of the cross, and its worship and use as a religious symbol goes back long before Christ. It was a symbol used by pagan nations. Many historians claim the cross was originated by early Eyptians and Babylonians. For reference see The Two Babylons by Alexander Hislop and research by John Gardner Wilkinson titled Wilkinson's Egyptians. The misconception of what the cross is has been carried over from the Egyptians and Babylonians and today taught as a symbol of worship. No where in the Bible is the cross discribed as a symbol of worship. The cross or stake was a torture method for the governments of that time."
Interestingly, the paragraph is completed with these last sentences:
"The cross or stake was a torture method for the governments of that time. True Christians ought not to display Christ's torture method in their homes or to be worn around their necks. Today, if Christ were killed by a gun, would modern day religious merchants sell artifacts shaped like a gun for people to worship?"

Seems a case can certainly be made for the "cross" as historical symbol. Whether or not those who erected the monument, or those who continue to protect it, have any religious affiliation is irrelevant.

Cross in group's crossfire

April 25, 2012 by Former Woonsocket resident (not verified), 2 years 14 weeks ago
Comment: 1166

Oh my GOD!!!! I just looked out the window, and what did I see? Telephone poles in the shape of a cross!!! Quick...you better take down all the telephone pole crosses. You might just offend someone.

To the ONE person in Woonsocket who sent a letter to the FFRF: GET OVER YOURSELF. You are offending me, and you are also offending anyone who has served this country in the military. Majority rules.

Anyone Familiar with the history of the monument / fire station.

April 25, 2012 by toml (not verified), 2 years 14 weeks ago
Comment: 1165

Does anyone know if the fire station preceeded the monument and if the men named on the monument were members of the fire department.

Cross on the Monument

April 25, 2012 by Freedom (not verified), 2 years 14 weeks ago
Comment: 1162

This cross has been in place since 1921, and where have the liberals been all this time? Hiding under a rock? Our USA Constitution is written for religious freedom and not against religious freedom. There is only one USA Constitution and not many interpetations of it. Please read it carefully.

Don't they have a life in Wisconsin ?

April 25, 2012 by Jeffo46 (not verified), 2 years 14 weeks ago
Comment: 1161

As a veteran myself,I can not believe that some group of atheiest nuts from wisconsin of all places, want to remove a monument dedicated to our WW I veterans. Have they've been eating too much cheese up there ? There is nothing offensive about the monument at all. It's been there for years and as far as I can tell, nobody in the city has ever been harmed by it, but yet some cheesehead retards from Wisconsin of all places, have taken it upon themselves to assume that they have the right to tell us here in Woonsocket, what we can or can not have as monuments in our city. Here's what I have to say to these jokers, " Get a Life Already !"

Cross in groups crosshairs

April 25, 2012 by Diane M. Berthelette (not verified), 2 years 14 weeks ago
Comment: 1160

To whom the cross offends,

I am sorry that you take offense to this, however I do not appreciate your selfishness. To bring suit against the city when it,s already struggling leads me to believe your objection is NOT to the cross or where it's placed but your lack of money and/or notoriety. Furthermore, the citizens of the city can barely afford their bills now. Perhaps they should thank you for their added burden,since that is the only way to pay for such a suit. I know my elderly relatives aren't very happy.

The Cross

April 24, 2012 by SFCAJOHN (not verified), 2 years 14 weeks ago
Comment: 1158

I lived in San Francisco for many years....they have'ed a "problem" with a cross on Mount Davidson in the City.....save lawyer and contact their Board of Supervisors to find out how they argued to the and won their case.

same old tired argument

April 24, 2012 by skwerllee (not verified), 2 years 14 weeks ago
Comment: 1157

"Fontaine agrees. 'The monument’s been sitting there for 97 years and no one had a problem with it,' he says."

How the heck does he know nobody had a problem with it? Did he personally interview everyone who has looked at it over the past 97 years? Silence does not equal acceptance.

I suppose when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, Fontaine would have said, "Whites have always taken the best seats and no one ever had a problem with it."

What he really means is, "no one who matters."

cross memorial

April 24, 2012 by luckeelady3@yahoo.com (not verified), 2 years 14 weeks ago
Comment: 1156

In re: to the cross for the memorial, leave the cross alone. Don't you bunch of inbasiles get the picture yet, You are dealing with a POWER larger and FORGIVING, much more than you could ever be. This bull-ssss all started with that 16 yr, old in cranston, well you won't all win this battle. She will have to answer to GOD some day as will the rest of you people that are evidently not thinking with a clear mind. Don't fool around with the CREATOR or you will all pay the price. Leave well enough alone, there has been enough of this going on, what's going to happen if you get ill and need prayer or a loved one where are you going to turn then, the DEVIL, cause anybody that would complain about this cross doesnt't have any brains.. cathy morrill

Can someone buy the small

April 24, 2012 by Joeldor (not verified), 2 years 14 weeks ago
Comment: 1155

Can someone buy the small piece of property from the city for a dollar and then it can stay where it is???

Call it a grave marker.....

April 24, 2012 by Marcel (not verified), 2 years 14 weeks ago
Comment: 1154

It's a replica of a grave marker for all those soldiers who died in Europe... period.

Let that organization busy itself with first suing the federal government for having "In God We Trust" on our currency and then come back and talk to us later.

Another thought would be for the City to deed and sell to the VFW or other veteran organization the small portion of land the monument sits on
Every home in Woonsocket should put one of these crosses in its front yard in honor of our country and in respect for our veterans. Those who would be offended can go blind or move on.

call it a grave marjer

April 25, 2012 by jane2698 (not verified), 2 years 14 weeks ago
Comment: 1169

I like your statement that every home should put a cross in their yard..These people need a life. jane

Fire fighter's cross

April 24, 2012 by marysmtt (not verified), 2 years 14 weeks ago
Comment: 1153

I am so tired of hearing people complain about whether a cross or banner should be able to stay, mind you where it has been for eons. All of these different ethnics that have to come to the United States freely to live in a better place should not complain about the way religion that was here when they got here. There are many other things that are going on in this world that are more important, e.g. Our young men dying in war, cities and towns going bankrupt, more taxes, no more social security. Please stop all the petty fights. If you don't like the religion that was here for centuries, THEN LEAVE.

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