The Supreme Court today denied an appeal in a case involving the Mount Soledad Cross in La Jolla, California, thereby effectively ruling the 29-foot tall cross on public property unconstitutional. (For a history of the Mt. Soledad cross, see Wikipedia. For a report on today’s ruling, see here.)
This ruling should give supporters of a similar cross in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, now the center of a swirling controversy since the Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter to Mayor Leo Fontaine asking the cross be removed, pause. There are many similarities between the two crosses, and those similarities demonstrate without a doubt that the Woonsocket Cross is in fact in violation of the First Amendment.
Supporters of the cross in La Jolla had argued that the cross atop the memorial was only one element of the overall design, and that the display was a war memorial, which granted the monument a kind of secularity under the law. But in January 2011, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed with that logic, saying that La Jolla was sending the message that the government was endorsing a specific religion, Christianity, in allowing the cross to be displayed on public property.
The Mt. Soledad cross was built in 1954, the cross in Woonsocket was constructed in 1952, as I pointed out back in May. This dating places both crosses solidly in the anti-communist cold war religious boom of the 1950′s. Previous to this time period war memorials were almost never adorned with religious symbols. Look around, the cases in La Jolla and Woonsocket stand out because they are exceptions. Most war memorials are secular and patriotic, not religious. But the 1950′s became a heyday for ostentatious displays of Christianity, out of fear of “godless” communism, so in addition to dotting the land with Latin crosses and Ten Commandment displays we also saw the words “under God” awkwardly jammed into the Pledge of Allegiance and “In God We Trust” scrawled on our currency.
The bill passed in Rhode Island by the General Assembly in the wee ours of the morning just before ending their last legislative session that sought to confer some sort of retroactive secularity on the Woonsocket Monument, if signed into law by Governor Chafee or allowed to stand without his signature, will not pass constitutional muster, and will only serve to muddy the issue. This poorly reasoned bill will end up being contested in and thrown out by the courts, costing our state more money in legal fees.
Mayor Fontaine and the Woonsocket City Council should be very much aware of the cross in La Jolla. They were briefed on it by by legal counsel on May 1, 2012 as can be seen and heard in this video The Woonsocket Cross: Woonsocket City Council Special Meeting – May 1, 2012 at the 27 minutes 25 seconds point. Counsel for Woonsocket felt confident that the Supreme Court would overturn the Appeals Court ruling, which would strengthen Woonsocket’s case. Unfortunately the Supreme Court decided otherwise.
The City of Woonsocket could certainly decide to fight this case, and it would be well within their rights to exhaust every legal option in doing so, but the cost to the city both financially and emotionally could be quite damaging. It might be time for Woonsocket to consider a new strategy: Move the cross topped monument to private land, and re-dedicate Place Jolicoeur with a new, secular memorial to our cherished veterans.