Folks who read this column during the whole Cranston prayer banner controversy know I am a stickler about church and state separation.
Even when a complaint may seem picayune or silly, or targets a much revered or longstanding symbol, having religious iconography on public property is wrong and impermissible under the Constitution. Public property should and must be a zone of neutrality where all faiths feel welcome to pass and roam freely, but none can plant a flag — or a cross, or a crescent or a six-pointed star.
The idea is not freedom from religion, as the Wisconsin group opposing the Woonsocket memorial would have you believe, it is to protect religion from the encroachment of government.
As a wise man once said, when you mix politics and religion, what you get is politics. The Founding Fathers, who knew well the history of the bloody civil wars incited by mingling of church and state in the England many of them left, were careful to keep the corrupting hand of government out of religion in the Bill of Rights.
But the war memorial at Place Jolicoeur is different — materially, qualitatively and significantly different. It is different because it is not a religious symbol at all. Cross or no cross, it is not a religious symbol, it is a war memorial.
Its purpose — its reason for being, and for being where it is in the public square — has nothing to do with faith or religion. It is there to remember, and recognize the sacrifice of, the soldiers it honors: William Jolicoeur and Alexandre, Henri and Louis Gagne. The cross at the top is ancillary; it is, in effect, a decoration on the monument and what it denotes, any religious significance aside, is that this is a substitute for the graves these men will never have in their home city. They are buried on the faraway battlefields where they fell in service to their country.
I am not a lawyer, but I still watch a lot of “Law & Order” reruns, and there seems to be a U.S. Supreme Court decision fairly on point. The high court ruled that the display on public property of a crèche (Nativity scene) or menorah at the Christmas/Chanukah season is permissible if there are also secular symbols — Santa Claus, Christmas trees, candy canes, snowmen, etc. — as part of the display. That is exactly the case with the monument: there is the stone, the American flag and the plaque that are all important parts of the memorial as well as the cross.
By focusing on the cross, rather than the entirety of the memorial, and trying to get it removed, the Freedom From Religion Foundation opens itself up to charges of, well, zealotry. By attacking a war memorial as a manifestation of the establishment of a religion, they risk marginalizing themselves and poisoning the well for any future — and more worthy — complaints they might raise. It may be an unfortunate metaphor given the context, but is this the hill they are willing to die on?
So yes, the Place Joilcoeur monument is worth preserving, as it is, where it is.
However, the word worth can be a sticky one in a city that is, its mayor concedes, “teetering on the brink of insolvency.” The city can not afford a cripplingly expensive legal battle over the monument, not right now. But neither can it afford to relinquish principle and cave into unreasonable demands simply because of the cost.
Mayor Leo Fontaine should first call the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s bluff and see if they really have the will to take this case to court. If they do, then the City Solicitor should simply file a summary motion to dismiss, which has every chance of being successful. If it isn’t and the matter must be fought out in court then there are many attorneys who would gladly take this case on a pro-bono basis or many organizations — perhaps even the ACLU if they can be convinced this is a speech rather than religious issue — that would be willing to put up the resources to fund a court fight.
The city should and must find some way to preserve the integrity of this memorial to sons of Woonsocket who died in battle.
For more years than I care to count, I have been covering hearings in cities and towns and the Statehouse where police officers and firefighters come to testify about budget issues — this is particularly true recently with all the various proposals to alter pension benefits.
As part of their argument they will inevitably say that, because of the nature of their jobs, when they leave to go to work they never know for sure if they will get to go back home, or see their families ever again.
I have to admit that, given the repetition, I do the one thing those public servants don’t want me to do. I take it for granted. I stop writing those quotes down in my notebook, because I know they likely won’t make it into the story.
As an outsider, someone who is observing and writing down, rather than living the life they are talking about, I become inured to it. It goes in one ear and out the other, often seeming like a play on emotions in a fight over money.
It takes something like last week’s funeral of Providence Police Sgt. Maxwell Dorley to hit you in the gut with the realization that when cops and firemen say they could die in the line of duty any day they go to work, it is more than just words. For them and their families it is a horrible, nerve wracking, sleep-stealing way of life. And far too often, their worst fears are realized.
That’s really all there is to say about it, except that, the next time you are tempted to gripe and groan about greedy, grasping public employee unions and their generous benefits, take a quick second to think about Sgt. Maxwell Dorley and what he contributed to “public service.”