WOONSOCKET – The Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) hasn’t forgotten about the city’s Place Jolicoeur monument.
The monument – a war memorial that had long since blended into the background of city life – got its 15 minutes of fame last year when the FFRF wrote to Mayor Leo T. Fontaine demanding that the Latin cross atop the structure be removed because it rests on city property and thus improperly gives government sanction to a religious symbol.
Rebecca Markert of the FFRF told The Call Monday it has not dropped its objection to the memorial.
“We are still in the process of looking for somebody who would be willing to come forward and be a plaintiff,” Markert said. “Unfortunately, the treatment of Jessica Ahlquist during her lawsuit [in Cranston] has sort of spoiled other people’s participation in coming out publicly. Unfortunately, Rhode Island didn’t seem to be a very welcoming community to people who are standing up for church/state complaints.”
That may be an understatement.
When the FFRF wrote to the mayor seeking the removal of the cross, which the foundation said was based on a complaint by a Woonsocket resident, it instantly generated howls of protests from veterans, citizens and religious groups. A rally that attracted hundreds of shouting protesters was held at the site of the monument. The city organized a defense fund that collected nearly $2,000 to fight back any court challenge. A state law was passed in response to the controversy to preserve and protect such monuments on public property. Last December, the city’s official Christmas ornament carried an image of the Place Jolicoeur memorial.
Markert explained that, for the complaint to have standing in court, it would have to be brought by someone local. “We are running into those types of issues,” she said. “We are working with a number of locals who may be interested, so it is kind of wait and see right now.
“As far as we’re concerned, as long as the cross is up, it is still unconstitutional,” she said. “It’s not a dead issue.”
Jessica Ahlquist was the Cranston West High School student who successfully sued to have a prayer banner removed from the wall of that school’s auditorium. Her action caused a ruckus in that city and the young girl was visibly assailed for months. A Cranston flower shop ran into trouble when it refused to deliver an order of flowers to Ahlquist after her suit prevailed.
Cumberland Rep. James McLaughlin authored the legislation to protect what it designates as “category one” memorial items from challenges regarding the separation of church and state. The measure, which became law last year without Gov. Lincoln Chafee’s signature would designate as “category one” memorial items that have “attained a secular traditional, cultural, or community recognition and/or value; is located on property that is owned by either the state, a city or town, and was in existence before January 1, 2012. It states that “potential identification of an item or the item having recognizable identification with a known or established religion shall not exclude the item from being designated as a category one memorial item.”
Told on Monday that the FFRF is still waiting for a local plaintiff to bring suit on the Woonsocket monument, a combative McLaughlin said, “they can wait until Hell freezes over. Tell them to stay in Wisconsin where they belong.”
McLaughlin said the law is in place to protect the monuments and others like it, although that is not clear from the language of the statute. As written, the law seems only to define a category one memorial item and create a commission to so designate such structures, but it doesn’t specify an protections from legal challenges.
When Chafee allowed the measure to become law, he issued a statement that said, “this legislation reflects a communal wish to bestow certain historical public monuments with a mark of dignity and respect. While I believe there are good intentions supporting this bill, I want to make clear that no law should seek to intrude upon the inherent function of the judicial branch of government to interpret laws and apply them to specific facts and circumstances. It will be for the courts to decide whether any particular monument excessively entangles the state in religious matters or expresses an inappropriate preference for one religion over another.”
McLaughlin said he is working with legislative leaders to make the first appointments to the commission.
Place Jolicoeur was originally a simple traffic island, similar to others located across the city, to honor William Jolicoeur, a city man killed in battle in France during World War I., dedicated by French war hero Marshall Foch during a visit to the city.
The large stone and the controversial cross on top of it were built in 1952, when the names of Alexandre, Henri and Louis Gagne, three Woonsocket brothers who were all killed in World War II were added to it.