The thorny constitutional principle of separation of church and state is rearing its head over a 1921 World War I monument featuring a prominent Christian cross on city property. Unlike the recent prayer banner controversy in Cranston, which was sued by the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, the threat of legal action in this case is coming from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national nonprofit organization halfway across the country.
On April 13, the Madison, Wisc.-based foundation sent Mayor Leo T. Fontaine a letter calling the display of the “Latin cross” on public property “unlawful” and demanding that the situation be rectified.
The monument, a cross, at the Woonsocket Fire Department Station 2 on Cumberland Hill Road, was originally erected in 1921 to honor William Jolicoeur, a member of the American Expeditionary Forces killed in France during World War I, according to The Woonsocket Call. Later, it was rededicated in honor of three brothers killed in World War II, Alexandre, Henri and Louis Gagne.
“No secular purpose, no matter how sincere, will detract from the overall message that the Latin cross stands for Christianity,” the FFRF’s staff attorney Rebecca Markert said in the letter.
Tom Poole, a disabled veteran, is one of many in Woonsocket trying to protect a cross that stands on top of a monument located in the parking lot of the city’s fire station on Cumberland Hill Road.
The Freedom from Religion Foundation wants the cross removed on the grounds that the monument violates the separation of church. The group also wants the Woonsocket Fire Department to remove “The Firefighter’s Prayer” and a picture of an angel from its website because it is a direct violation of the First Amendment and the Constitution.
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