Is this soldier-and-cross display too religious? NJ town threatened with lawsuit
ROSELLE PARK — A sculpture of a soldier kneeling at a cross on the borough library lawn is being called a violation of the separation of church and state by a secular group that has threatened to sue the municipality.
American Humanist Association Executive Director Roy Speckhardt says he believes the display, which shows a soldier kneeling before a cross, sends a message that "our brave, non-Christian service members are somehow less worthy of honor and respect.”
The American Humanist Association's lawyer sent Mayor Carl Hokanson a letter on Thursday asking him to remove the sculpture or risk exposing the borough to a civil rights lawsuit.
The association sent the letter after the husband of a borough councilwoman wrote his own letter complaining about the display that was installed in July.
"While this may be acceptable in a memorial placed on church or other private grounds, it is unacceptable in memorials placed on public property," resident Gregory D. Storey wrote in his Aug. 2 letter. "It singles out one religion and amounts to an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion."
Storey's letter claims borough employees installed the display even though the mayor reportedly told Storey that it had been approved by the library's Board of Trustees.
A representative for Hokanson would not comment to New Jersey 101.5 citing a legal investigation.
Storey is the husband of Councilwoman Charlene Storey, who in December made news by announcing that she would resign in protest of the Union County borough changing the name of its "Tree Lighting" to the "Christmas Tree Lighting."
The councilwoman, who said she was raised Catholic but is now a "non-believer," later rescinded her resignation after the mayor suggested she head a municipal committee on diversity. Both are Democrats.
As this latest example shows, controversy over religious symbols in public spaces doesn't just pop over during the holidays.
Last year, another pro-secularism group — the Freedom From Religion Foundation — called on the Gloucester County borough of Clayton to change its 1960s-era motto, “Great Place to Live and Play, Work and Pray.” Officials voted in March to leave the motto as it is.
The American Humanist Association's letter (read it below) says Roselle Park's display is a violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment, which prohibits the government from establishing a state religion and is the basis for what's commonly referred to as the separation of church and state.
The 10-page letter cites numerous court rulings to support its position.
"The courts have been virtually unanimous in holding that a government cross display, in any context, is unconstitutional," the letter says.
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Contact reporter Dan Alexander at Dan.Alexander@townsquaremedia.com