WOONSOCKET — The Wisconsin group that condemned a World War I monument bearing a Latin cross as a violation of the separation of church and state because it’s located on city property may have a legal battle on its hands after all.
Buoyed by offers of free legal assistance and an outpouring of public support, the City Council will decide tonight whether to establish a defense fund to keep the monument at Place Jolicoeur, in the parking lot of Fire Station No. 2, with the Latin cross intact.
“Clearly the level of support we’ve received is an indication of how strongly people around the country feel about the monument,” said Mayor Leo T. Fontaine. “The support they’re offering may enable us to move forward with a defense of a legal claim against the monument, if one is ever filed.”
The Madison, Wisc.-based Freedom From Religion Foundation sent Fontaine a letter on April 13 demanding that the cross be removed from the monument, saying it runs afoul of the constitutional prohibition on state-sponsored religion.
The national nonprofit group also objected to the image of an angel comforting a firefighter and the inclusion of “The Fire Fighter’s Prayer” on the Woonsocket Fire Department’s website, saying they, too, are illegal and must be removed.
The letter was triggered by a complaint from a city resident who is “offended” by the religious icon on city property, according to FFRF, which has so far declined to identify the individual.
If approved, a resolution the council is slated to take up at 7:30 tonight in Harris Hall would create “The City of Woonsocket War Memorial Defense and Preservation Fund.” Money deposited into the account would be separate from the general fund and could be used only for “legal and related costs” incurred in defense of the monument and the disputed content of the WFD’s website.
If it turns out the money isn’t needed for a lawsuit, it could be used to maintain the monument, as well as other military memorials in the city, the resolution says.
Some officials, including the mayor and City Council President John Ward, had expressed a reluctance to get dragged into a costly legal fight after receiving the letter, citing the recent imbroglio with the American Civil Liberties Union over a prayer banner in a Cranston school.
The city is teetering on the brink of insolvency and is looking for ways to eke out the fiscal year, including a hefty supplemental tax bill slated for action in the legislature, probably within a few days.
But the reaction to the potential cost of the litigation surfaced before the story went national, and the phone at City Hall began ringing off the hook with offers of donations to fight the FFRF if it sues Woonsocket over the monument.
Fontaine said the city has since fielded numerous offers of pro bono legal help from foundations committed to religious freedom and law firms, as well as contributions from private individuals, from all over the country.
“The magnitude of the response has been incredible,” said the mayor. “We’ve gotten calls from California, Washington State, Texas and Florida. We’ve gotten calls from five or six law firms and foundations.”
The Liberty Counsel, the Alliance Defense Fund and the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which supported Cranston’s fight to save a prayer banner, are among the national organizations offering free legal help.
“The name says it all,” Mat Staver, the Liberty Counsel’s CEO said in a statement opposing the FFRF. “They want no free exercise of religion at all. They are chipping away at our Christian heritage one war memorial, one creche display, one prayer proclamation at a time.”
Fontaine said one ex-Woonsocket resident from Mississippi “offered to fly here and hand-deliver a check to me for $1,000.”
Even political hopefuls are seizing the day. Former State Police Supt. Brendan Doherty, a Republican challenger for the U.S. House seat held by Democrat David Cicilline issued a statement decrying the FFRF’s “overzealous attack” on patriots, while U.S. Senate contender Barry Hinckley, a Republican eyeing Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse’s seat, pledged to put up his own money to help “purchase and preserve” the monument.
The storied marker was dedicated amid much fanfare to the memory of Private William Jolicoeur, a Woonsocket resident killed in World War I. Marshal Ferdinand Foch, a Frenchman who was the supreme commander of the Allied Forces in Europe, traveled to Woonsocket to dedicate the monument on Nov. 13, 1921. The monument was later rededicated in May 1952 in memory of three brothers, Alexandre, Henri and Louis Gagne, after all three were killed in World War II.
Some city officials say the white cross on the monument is not a religious symbol, but a historical artifact intended to replicate the crosses on the gravesites of Jolicoeur, and thousands of other U.S. servicemen, at the location where they are actually buried, in the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery in France.