April 24, 2012

Anti-Religion (Pro Legal Fee?) Zealots Take Aim at Woonsocket

Monique Chartier

The Woonsocket Call reports.

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.

Despite being a heathen, I am eminently sympathetic with the religious side of these matters. This newest unpleasant development, along with the Cranston prayer banner, strike me as not much more than a form of fiscal bullying. In a call to the Matt Allen Show a couple of months ago during the Cranston prayer banner debate, Jeff in Warwick (a fellow atheist) phrased it well: this is taking the First Amendment way past what our founding fathers had in mind.

Woonsocket City Council President John Ward has his own, not unreasonable theory.

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.

And they might not have anything to do here. The city's dire fiscal condition has herded both Mr. Ward and Mayor Fontaine away from a court battle.

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.

While there is a principle to defend here, it takes more than a determined will to prevail in such a skirmish. Filthy lucre is required, something that is in quite short supply in our cities and towns. Accordingly, distaste as it may be, I cannot disagree with the ultimate conclusion of Mayor Fontaine and Mr. Ward.

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Well, Monique, I am not a heathen, more likely a pagan. I came to that conclusion when I found that it was not ink that Martin Luther and the devil were throwing at each other.

In any case, I am sure that some of the memorialized are Christians and they should have their cross. I find the idea of adding a Star of David more reasonable than the FFRF's suggestion.

Posted by: Warrington Faust at April 24, 2012 4:23 PM

Is there no "grandfather" type of status that could be conferred on these memorials and the like? I find the idea of tearing down or removing a veterans memorial far more offensive than I could ever believe the mere sight of a cross could be to anyone. It is a vestige of another era when the nation was much more religious in whole. Short of it falling on someone, what possible harm could it cause anyone?

Posted by: Bucket Chick at April 24, 2012 5:43 PM

Wow, I had the same thought, a grandfather clause would solve a lot of problems. It seems picayune to file a lawsuit over something that has stood the test of time for almost a hundred years.

Posted by: michael at April 24, 2012 6:10 PM

I think the counter-argument to the grandfathering is that the Constitution existed even before these memorials and it's the Constitution that's being cited making these things illegal.

Unless there's a memorial that existed before 1788, I'm not sure there's even much ground for grandfathering.

Posted by: Patrick at April 24, 2012 7:56 PM

There is no grandfather clause in the First Amendment of the Constitution. I suppose we could add one, although it would look pretty stupid.

Posted by: Dan at April 24, 2012 8:26 PM

Monique,thank you so much for your informative,balanced,sensible and fair posts. You seem scrupulously honest.

Our history and culture are being bit by bit erased by such actions as brought by this group.

What if when cities and towns are attacked this way,they start a voluntary fund to put up some sort of educational memorial sign or plaque on the site,giving the history of what happened there? There is the Trail of Tears,this could be the Walk of Shame.

The plaque could give an explanation of what formerly occupied the site,it's historic and cultural significance and what happened to make it be removed.

Name names of the group(s) and individuals involved in the removal.
Surely we could raise enough funds to put up simple plaques or signs like that.

Posted by: helen at April 24, 2012 9:49 PM

To the extent you think the government's display of the cross a trifle that can safely be overlooked, you might heed James Madison's argument against a mere three pence tax proposed for support of churches: "The free men of America did not wait till usurped power had strengthened itself by exercise, and entangled the question in precedents. They saw all the consequences in the principle, and they avoided the consequences by denying the principle. We revere this lesson too much soon to forget it. Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects? That the same authority which can force a citizen to contribute three pence only of his property for the support of any one establishment, may force him to conform to any other establishment in all cases whatsoever?" Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments (1785). In other words, if you let the government get away with illegitimate trifles, you'll be hard put to later defend against more serious abridgments of the Constitution.

Posted by: Doug Indeap at April 24, 2012 10:48 PM

It seems to me that a reasonable solution would be to donate the small piece of real estate, to a veterans group or private party. It could be the 10 ft by 10 ft area that holds the memorial. No longer city or state owned. Make it tax exempt to whom ever it is donated to.

Posted by: Marilyn at April 25, 2012 1:54 AM

de minimis non curat lex ("The law does not concern itself with trifles")

Whatever small discomfort that may arise from this monument being viewed by heathens, pagans, atheists, non-christians, etc. is not sufficient to invoke the majesty of the law. If they can bear "In God We Trust" on their currency, they can bear up under the sight of a cross on a monument. Now, of course, if they were vampires they might have a minority cause of action.

It occurs to me that many of the people memorialized may have died in furtherance of what they regarded as a Christian belief.

Why does one hear more about God from atheists than from the truly devout?

Posted by: Warrington Faust at April 25, 2012 5:14 AM

"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."

Wow, now there's some fertile territory for these clowns. You've got the Fire Fighter's prayer and the Policeman's Prayer on municipal websites across the country. While not being a religious person, I find those prayers less offensive than a government envelope printed with a union logo. Now that's offensive. Do you think the ACLU would represent me.

Posted by: Max D at April 25, 2012 7:43 AM

" I find those prayers less offensive than a government envelope printed with a union logo."

Great point. Me, too.

Posted by: Monique at April 25, 2012 8:29 AM

Helen, thank you for your nice comment. Certainly, the actions against this memorial and the Cranston Prayer Banner belong in a Hall of Shame.

Posted by: Monique at April 25, 2012 8:56 AM

It seems to me, the Freedom From Religion group and the West Borough Baptist Church have the same principles.

Fight us and you'll make us rich.

I like the idea of selling (for $1.00) the property the monument is situated on to a veterans group. The same people who are offended will probably still be offended but they won't have a city to sue so I bet it wouldn't 'offend' them near as much.

Posted by: RITaxpayer at April 25, 2012 9:00 AM

City council should draft a resolution donating that precise plot of land to the local VFW.

Posted by: JTR at April 25, 2012 9:30 AM

I don't suppose it would do any good to point out that a monument of the type described doesn't even come close to an "establishment of religion." The line of court cases condemning public displays of religious symbols reflects a hostility to religion that comes from somewhere other than the Constitution.

Posted by: David P at April 25, 2012 1:35 PM

If I remember correctly (and I could be wrong - I was young), when the Christmas nativity display in Pawtucket when to the Supreme Court, the ruling was that it did not violate the establishment clause as long as it was inclusive and included other religious and secular symbols. Maybe the solution isn't to tear it down, but expand it to feature other symbols?

Posted by: Bucket Chick at April 25, 2012 5:53 PM

I have a real problem with selling the monuent to the VFW. It is this, those memorialized "died for their country", not for the VFW. To even consider backing off to such a degree is shameful. "Dog Tags" indicated religion for some reason. Does anyone know if athiests got an "A"? Given the "religiousity" of earlier periods, would anyone have admitted such a thing?

Posted by: Warrington Faust at April 25, 2012 8:43 PM

Doug Indeap,this memorial does not represent Congressional establishment of a religion. That is the Constitutional restriction on Congress. Congress did not declare that this monument to the fallen in war must have a Christian theme or symbol representing a national religion.

As for paying taxes for religious establishment,what about President Bush's Faith Based Initiative? What about the money we send to other countries which suppress religion or have no religious freedom?

Posted by: helen at April 25, 2012 10:00 PM

Warrington-atheists,agnostics,and people who just won't designate a religion got "NRP" when I was in the service-"no religious preference"-I had a friend who somehow got "orthodox pervert"put on his dogtags-he got killed in an accident-I wonder which chaplain they called.

Posted by: joe bernstein at April 25, 2012 10:10 PM


While the First Amendment undoubtedly was intended to preclude the government from formally establishing an official religion as you note, that was hardly the limit of its intended scope. The first Congress debated and rejected just such a narrow provision ("no religion shall be established by law, nor shall the equal rights of conscience be infringed") and ultimately chose the more broadly phrased prohibition now found in the Amendment. In keeping with the Amendment's terms and legislative history and other evidence, the courts have wisely interpreted it to restrict the government from promoting or otherwise taking steps to establish religion de facto as well as de jure. Were the Amendment interpreted merely to preclude government from enacting a statute formally establishing a state church, the intent of the Amendment could easily be circumvented by government doing all sorts of things to promote this or that religion--stopping just short of cutting a ribbon to open its new church.

Also, while the First Amendment constrains only the federal government, the freedoms and rights it protects are among those that the 14th Amendment protects from infringement by state governments as well.

With respect to government displaying monuments and such, courts generally consider the circumstances of each case and assess whether a reasonable person would understand the government to be promoting (or opposing) religion.

Wake Forest University has published a short, objective Q&A primer on the current law of separation of church and state–as applied by the courts rather than as caricatured in the blogosphere. I commend it to you--and would offer a link if this site allowed.

Posted by: Doug Indeap at April 26, 2012 9:29 AM


Where was all this concern when the monuments were erected, or when (1951) "In God We Trust" was put on the currency? Why does Congress have a chaplain? Much ado about nothing.

Posted by: Warrington Faust at April 26, 2012 2:43 PM


History and law offer answers to your questions, but I gather you intended them to be rhetorical, so I'll spare you and me the trouble. If you're truly interested, answers can be found in the Wake Forest paper noted above.

Posted by: Doug Indeap at April 26, 2012 10:42 PM

Gosh,it's been quite a few days and I just found this answer from Doug.

Okay Doug. "Nor shall equal rights of conscience be infringed." Yet as you point out the Founders protected us even more.

They said that congress cannot violate our freedom of religious expression. That is quite clear. There are no exceptions such as religious expression might not be respectful to diversity,or some people might get offended by other people's religious beliefs. No exceptions.

I think you should read the Constitution as it was written. It's manner of expression is such that those unschooled in law can understand it.

Your worried scenario about government promotion of religion is prevented by the First Amendment. Do you comprehend that?

Further,there is no separation of church and state codified in the constitution,and I'm sure you are well aware of that. I believe you are being disingenious.

The famous letter mentioning the separation of church and state was meant to reassure one Christian denomination that another Christian denomination would not become forced on those who had different beliefs. I don't know why you would try to hide that fact. Notice,by the way,they were all Christians.

Posted by: helen at May 4, 2012 9:01 PM

Goodness,why do I always make typo spelling mistakes? Tsk Maybe 'cause I get so enthused. I do know how to spell,mostly. Honest. LOL!

Posted by: helen at May 4, 2012 9:15 PM
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