FFRF’s routine letter of complaint April 13 to Mayor Leo Fontaine, Woonsocket, R.I., over a Latin cross at city Fire Station No. 2 has provoked near-hysteria.
Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Kilmartin publicly “applauded” the mayor and City Council for “preparing to fight the attack by the Freedom From Religion Foundation.”
State Rep. James McLaughlin, D-Cumberland, introduced an overtly unconstitutional bill, H8143, to classify any “traditional, cultural or community” memorial as “secular property” even if it’s religious. Mayor Fontaine called FFRF “a couple of knuckleheads out of Wisconsin,” and on a local radio show said “I pray for people like this.”
Although FFRF has not sent a cease-and-desist letter threatening to sue, the city of Woonsocket has raised $15,000 for a fund to defend against a potential lawsuit. On May 2, more than 600 noisy protesters, carrying flags, crosses, godly signs and “Save the Cross” buttons rallied next to the cross, as “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” played, including many from the American Legion. The Legion mission statement ties “God and country.”
Former state Adjutant General Reginald Centraccio said he was drawing a “line in the sand,” saying the Legion is “going to battle against these atheists all the way back to Wisconsin.” (The “battling” seems to be a plethora of late-afternoon phone calls laced with profanity to FFRF’s office.)
Despite denials by city officials that the Latin cross has a Christian meaning, Roman Catholic Bishop Thomas Tobin addressed the rally, saying: “This is about presence of God in our lives and in our society. These are attempts to render our society bereft of moral values. If we don’t stand up we are complicit in the death of God in our society. I’m proud to stand here with you today to defend the presence of Christ in our lives.”
The cross was a gathering point for local observations of the National Day of Prayer on May 3.
A cross was erected in 1921 as part of a monument in memory of a local soldier killed in France in World War I. In 1952, the cross monument was apparently replaced with a new cross and rededicated both to the WWI soldier and three local brothers who died in World War II.
FFRF also complained about the Fire Station’s website whose rudimentary “memorial” page shows a guardian angel comforting a firefighter. The site also has a poem entitled “The FireFighters Prayer.”
Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Market noted in her letter that “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.”
The mayor initially opined 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, couldn’t afford a costly legal battle. “I would not vote to pay to defend it,” Ward said.
The claim is also made in an April local 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 and contacted FFRF for help.
“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% of Americans are non-Christians and 15% are not religious. Firefighters should be there to serve everyone, regardless of religious views.”
She added, “Of course we have no objection to war memorials, but they cannot be used as a subterfuge to post large permanent Latin crosses on government land. Cities can’t host monuments that appear to say, ‘We only care about your service if you are a Christian. Jewish, atheist or other non-Christians killed in U.S. wars don’t deserve recognition.’ There are many atheists in foxholes, and 24% of FFRF membership are vets or in the military, which is consistent with the number of nontheists in the military generally.”