The Woonsocket War Memorial Is Constitutional

The court decision most relevant to the Woonsocket’s war memorial that displays a cross isn’t the Cranston West prayer banner decision, it is the 2010 Salazar vs. Buono Supreme Court decision. The original issue in Salazar was whether the Federal Government could transfer to a private owner a parcel of land within the Mojave National Preserve in California, on which a cross had been placed in 1934 “to honor American soldiers who fell in World War I”, in order to avoid any church-state entanglement issues.
In the plurality opinion that held that such a transfer was acceptable, Justice Anthony Kennedy also directly addressed the question of whether a cross could legally be displayed on public land as a war memorial…

The cross had stood on Sunrise Rock for nearly seven decades before the statute was enacted. By then, the cross and the cause it commemorated had become entwined in the public consciousness….
….a Latin cross is not merely a reaffirmation of Christian beliefs. It is a symbol often used to honor and respect those whose heroic acts, noble contributions, and patient striving help secure an honored place in history for this Nation and its people. Here, one Latin cross in the desert evokes far more than religion. It evokes thousands of small crosses in foreign fields marking the graves of Americans who fell in battles, battles whose tragedies are compounded if the fallen are forgotten.
This decision from just two years ago makes clear that bona fide war memorials that incorporate crosses on public lands are Constitutional, and there’s no question that the cross in Woonsocket, “erected in 1921 and…dedicated to four men who lost their lives defending the United States”, is part of a bona fide war memorial. (The succinct description of the memorial is from Tony Gugliotta of WJAR-TV).
A second court opinion worth reading on this matter is Judge Paul J. Kelly’s 2010 circuit-court dissent in American Atheists v. Duncan, aka the Utah roadside memorials case. In his dissent, Judge Kelly described how the “reasonable observers” constructed by the courts in church-state cases have a history of being anything but…
The court’s decision continues a troubling development in our Establishment Clause cases — the use of a “reasonable observer” who is increasingly hostile to religious symbols in the public sphere and who parses relevant context and history to find governmental endorsement of religion. Despite assurance from the Supreme Court that the Establishment Clause does not require us to “purge from the public sphere all that in any way partakes in the religious,” , the court’s “reasonable observer” seems intent on doing just that.
If the courts choose to ignore an opinion just two years old in order to declare the Woonsocket cross unconstitutional, then their rationale will be built upon an assumption that “reasonable” means growing ever-more cranky and irritated towards religious displays as time passes and that has been made to continually expand the scope of what is disallowed.

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John WardD
John Ward(@disqus_cihud2gmi1)
9 years ago

The City of Woonsocket is not in a position to exhaust its sparce financial resources to defend this case should it move into the courts. That said, my email account and home phone answering machine have been filled with objections to the threat and offers of support.
This monument, originally placed on a traffic island has not moved since erected in 1921.
With the outpouring of offers of support coming to me, other city council members, and our mayor, the memorial and our determination to leave it in place will be defended. One or more offers of pro bono defense, should it come to that, will be accepted and the peoples right to maintain the design and placement of this war memorial will be defended.
My thanks to all who have raised their voices in objection to this affront to our freedoms and I look forward to seeing this monument refurbished and kept in its rightful place in the island dedicated as Place Jolicoeur.
John Ward
Woonsocket City Council President

mangeek
mangeek
9 years ago

This might surprise some AR readers, but I concur with Carroll.
I’m an atheist, and I thought the prayer banner in Cranston to be a clear case of ‘establishment’, but a cross used as a memorial is something different. I don’t mind religious symbols or texts being used on public edifices, so long as there’s context or tradition to back it up and it’s not exclusionary.
Still, in this age, it seems to just make sense to avoid controversy by donating the square footage to the nearest VFW rather than spend taxpayer money to defend.

Monique
Monique(@monique-chartier)
Editor
9 years ago

“the cross in Woonsocket … is a bona fide war memorial”
Yes, that’s the point here. The primary purpose of this monument is memorial, not religious.

helen
helen
9 years ago

I’m a resident of Woonsocket. I like the memorial. Is my right to want the memorial equal to the right of the person who is offended by the memorial?
I can find a lot of things to be offended about,including the infringement on my first amendment right to freedom of religious expression.

helen
helen
9 years ago

Well,I’ll say it again.
Only Congress is enjoined from establishing or prohibiting the free exercise of religion. All else is left to the States or the people.
The people of Woonsocket made a war memorial with a cross,which is a Christion symbol.
Congress did not declare Christianity the government religion. The people of Woonsocket used the Christian symbol because it is their (our)right under the Supreme Law of our land.

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