Page 45 - RWU Law / Issue#4 Fall 2012

The Magazine of Roger Williams University School of Law
43
By Rebecca Markert ’08
Staff Attorney,
Freedom From Religion Foundation
Rhode Island was founded on the
fundamental principle that there can
be no true religious freedom unless the
government is divorced from religion.
Roger Williams, Rhode Island’s
founder and the University’s namesake,
established a colony based on religious
freedom and the separation of religion and
government. The success of his experiment
with these ideals would greatly influence
the Founding Fathers and contribute to
the fundamental American constitutional
principle of separation of state and church.
Despite this history, however, Rhode
Island remains a hotbed of state-and-
church controversies. It started notably
with a nativity scene on a city block in
Pawtucket, was followed by a rabbi-led
prayer at a middle school in Providence,
and then a challenge over a prayer mural
posted in a public high school in Cranston.
This spring, a local New Englander
contacted the Freedom From Religion
Foundation – the organization I work for –
questioning the legality of a Latin cross,
which is a dominant feature of the
Jolicoeur/Gagne Veterans’ War Memorial
in the parking lot of Fire Station 2
in Woonsocket. FFRF sent a letter of
complaint over the cross to Mayor Leo
Fontaine requesting its removal from
government property.
A Cross By Any
Other Name
In the past year, little Rhode Island has
found itself at the center of some very
big church and state issues – a separation
advocate explains why it matters
Local news picked up the story and
suddenly there was a firestorm of action: a
rally at the cross memorial; a legal defense
fund set up to accept donations; legislation
passed by the Rhode Island General
Assembly to designate certain memorials
secular.” The monument was finally
included as a stop in the Woonsocket
Memorial Day parade after many years of
being passed by, and a press conference
was held by the mayor of Woonsocket
(
more than three months after the original
complaint) to respond to FFRF’s request.
All of these efforts for one purpose: to save
the cross.
The U.S. Supreme Court has found the
religious significance of the Latin cross to
be unambiguous and indisputable. “The
Latin cross… is the principal symbol of
Christianity around the world, and display
of the cross alone could not reasonably be
taken to have any secular point.”
Capitol
Square Review
and
Advisory Bd. v. Pinette
,
515
U.S. 753, 792 (1995) (
Souter, J.,
concurring
).
An overwhelming majority
of federal courts in this country agree
that the Latin cross universally represents
the Christian religion and, ironically, so
do a majority of Rhode Island residents.
Pepin Lumber’s business started booming
after the Woonsocket memorial cross
controversy erupted. It began churning