Atheist group sues over Christian cross image in this veterans memorial
Posted October 12, 2016
A secular activist group has filed a lawsuit against a New Jersey borough, alleging that a display featuring the silhouette of a soldier praying before a Christian cross is unconstitutional.
The American Humanist Association’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center filed the lawsuit Sept. 27 on behalf of local citizens who disapprove of the display.
The fact the memorial is on public land caused the plaintiffs to voice concern that it constituted a violation of the separation of church and state.
According to a statement on the humanist group's website, the memorial, which was placed in front of Veterans Memorial Library in Roselle Park, New Jersey, on July 29, was also installed by Department of Public Works employees.
After residents reportedly complained to the government and were ignored, they took their case to the American Humanist Association with the complaint asking officials to remove the display and agree not to post anything like it in the future.
Interestingly, Roselle Park Councilwoman Charlene Storey and her husband Gregory Storey are also named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit. The two have been vocal against the display since its installation, according to NJ.com.
The memorial was reportedly paid for by Roselle Park Mayor Carl Hokanson, who declined to go on record with WCBS-TV to discuss the matter, but said the memorial was intended to honor every veteran.
The lawsuit was filed after the organization sent a warning letter to Roselle Park officials and the council voted to keep the display, with Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association, accusing officials of only choosing to favor Christian soldiers with the display.
And Appignani Humanist Legal Center attorney Monica Miller agreed, saying in a statement that "a cross displayed on government property, approved by the mayor and borough council, endorses religion in clear violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment."
The complaint alleges the presence of the cross "sends a strong message of endorsement and exclusion." It's a purported message of "religious favoritism" seen as even more problematic because the memorial purports to honor the dead.
Reports say Hokanson, who believes the display should stay in front of the library, has agreed to take it down while the battle plays out in court.
Charlene Storey and Hokanson reportedly clashed back in December as well when the mayor pushed to have the name of the "holiday" tree lighting ceremony changed to a "Christmas" tree lighting ceremony.
According to NJ.com, other residents have tried to donate other veterans' memorials to be placed outside the library — displays that feature atheist and Jewish religious symbols as well. Those requests are still pending.
This isn't the first time a religious symbol on a veterans memorial has sparked outrage, debate — and a legal challenge. In fact, Republican vice-presidential candidate Mike Pence defended a separate memorial in Indiana's Whitewater Memorial State Park in 2014.
Pence, who is the governor of Indiana, said at the time that "freedom of religion does not require freedom from religion," in defending the presence of a cross on the statue.
"I fully support the decision by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources to accept the sculpture commissioned by local citizens to honor all who have fallen in service to our country," Pence said at the time.
The American Humanist Association also noted a separate case in 2014 that the organization was victorious in — a debate over a similar veterans display in Lake Elsinore, California.
In that case, the city declined to appeal a judge's order stating that the monument violated the Establishment Clause in the U.S. Constitution as well as the No Preference Clause and Establishment Clause in the California constitution.
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