The Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter of complaint April 13 to Leo Fontaine, mayor of Woonsocket, R.I., about a Latin cross at city Fire Station No. 2 and religious postings on the Fire Department's website.
The cross has been there since 1921 as part of a monument erected in memory of an American serviceman killed in France in World War I.
The department's website has a rudimentary "memorial" page showing a guardian angel comforting a firefighter. The site also has a poem entitled "The FireFighters Prayer," which ends with a verse that seems woefully out of date:
And if according to my fate, I am to lose my life,
Please Bless with your protecting hand, my children
and my wife.
Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Market noted in FFRF's letter that it's illegal for the city to display "patently religious symbols and messages on city property. The website impermissibly demonstrates a preference for religion over nonreligion. The Latin cross at the fire station demonstrates Woonsocket’s preference for Christianity over other religions and nonreligion. Such government endorsements of religion runs afoul of the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution.
"We ask that you immediately remove the cross from the Fire Station parking lot and remove the prayer and angel from the Woonsocket Fire Department website. We would also appreciate a prompt response from you in writing, informing us of the steps the city will take to resolve this matter," Markert wrote.
The Woonsocket Call reported April 23 that the city is exploring its options. “I have no intention of removing the cross under any circumstances,” the newspaper quoted Fontaine saying.
But, Fontaine said, it may be necessary to move the monument to private property. City Council President John Ward said the city, which is in dire financial straits, can't afford a costly legal battle. “I would not vote to pay to defend it,” Ward said.
The claim is also made in the news story that no local person complained and that FFRF routinely patrols the whole country looking for such violations.
"That charge is absurd," said Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president, noting that a Woonsocket resident who regularly drives past the Christian display found it offensive.
"Our small staff is besieged with requests from members of the public who are upset about state-church violations," Gaylor said. "We only wish public officials who knowingly violate the Constitution could be held personally responsible for flouting the law. Nearly 30 percent of Americans are non-Christians and 15 percent are not religious. Firefighters should be there to serve everyone, regardless of religious views."