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.”
“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.