WOONSOCKET — The Wisconsin group challenging the constitutionality of a cross on a war memorial on city property says it expects to prevail without the type of long legal battle that unfolded over a prayer banner ordered removed this year from a public high school in Cranston.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation wrote to Mayor Leo Fontaine this month saying the Christian cross on a 1921 monument outside Fire Station No. 2 is unlawful because it violates the constitutional principle of separation of church and state.
Foundation co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor said the group expects the cross will be removed without legal action.
"We expect to prevail without going to court," she said this week. "Our assumption is that the city does not realize the law."
Council President John Ward told The Call this week that he agrees with those who say the cross is more of a historical symbol — like the grave markers at Normandy, France — but he said the financially struggling city can't afford to get dragged into a legal battle.
"I would not vote to pay to defend it," he told the newspaper.
Yet the city continues fielding offers of free legal representation from a variety of individuals and organizations, including groups proclaiming to advance the cause of religious freedom.
“The Freedom From Religion Foundation is on a crusade to scrub the public square of all religion,” said Mat Staver, chairman of Liberty Counsel, an international nonprofit with offices in Washington, D.C. “ They are chipping away at our Christian heritage, one war memorial, one creche display, one prayer proclamation at a time.”
City officials say the Liberty Council is just one would-be benefactor offering to take on the legal battle for the city, but Fontaine has yet to take up any of the offers, saying the city might be on the hook for legal fees if it lost the battle.
Fontaine has said the monument is a fitting tribute to soldiers who died in World Wars I and II and won't go away, though it could be moved to a more prominent spot, on private property. On WPRO-AM Radio, he called Gaylor's group a "couple of knuckleheads."
Gaylor, in turn, called that comment unprofessional.
"It's like saying the Founding Fathers are knuckleheads because they created a secular government," she told The Associated Press.
A federal judge in January ordered a prayer banner at a Cranston high school removed after the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union sued on behalf of student Jessica Ahlquist, an atheist. The judge's ruling that the banner was unconstitutional set off a storm of criticism of Ahlquist, including from a state lawmaker, who called her an "evil little thing."
The Freedom From Religion Foundation has supported Ahlquist with several awards. She inspired the "Atheists in Foxholes Support Fund" and was its first scholarship recipient, receiving $10,000.
The foundation has a complaint pending with the Rhode Island Commission for Human Rights after a Cranston florist refused to deliver flowers from the group to Ahlquist. The commission has said it cannot comment.
Gaylor said the group acted in Woonsocket after receiving a complaint from a resident who drives by the monument every day and is offended by it.
The person who complained is not one of the group's 45 members in Rhode Island, Gaylor said. She said the foundation receives between 50 and 100 complaints a week.
With Call staff and Associated Press reports.