Perverted law causes conflict.
[Much thanks to the The Valley Breeze for publishing this essay on May 9, 2012. The Valley Breeze is a northern Rhode Island newspaper servicing eleven towns, distributing 62,500 community newspapers in 5 distinct, weekly local editions. Minor edits made in this version do not modify content as it was published in TVB.]
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A story unfolds in the city of Woonsocket, RI, a city on the brink of bankruptcy, a story that is as much about the body politic as it is about religious beliefs, the Constitution of the United States of America, freedoms granted under such Constitution, and forces that endeavor to ensure those freedoms.
A story, too, about a just, rational and moral society, and a small parcel of real estate in Woonsocket which, for the most part, has gone unnoticed by its residents, save for a group of firefighters, and bloodlines of those for whom it was erected. The real estate: a corroding concrete monument topped with a white cross. Constructed in 1921 by a family honoring their beloved William Jolicoeur—a Christian, a WWI soldier, and one of the 53,000 plus members of the American Expeditionary Forces that were killed upon Europe's battlefields—the once nearly forgotten monument is now garnering national attention, and as such, is about to be improved, at no cost other than time, muscle ache and sweat, by those people who believe in a just, rational and moral society, and the preservation of such society, as fractured as it may be.
What has become a heated dispute on the streets and in the papers raises a simple question: Can a plain white cross on a ninety-one year old war monument in a forsaken parking lot in Woonsocket, RI survive the political left, atheistic scrutiny of those it offends?
Deep beneath the surface of this story lies another story, an uncomfortable truth about our just, rational and moral society, the state of our national psyche, human nature itself. But to fully understand the scope of the dispute, one must understand the history behind the monument topped with a white cross; a history that dates back to the signing of the Constitution, to the moment the monument was unveiled, to the day down-on-its-luck Woonsocket became unwittingly entangled, like many others, in a long-standing, freethinkers' crusade.
In 1921, when the monument was erected in Woonsocket on a center medium slab of Cumberland Hill Road, above the dark, thundering waters of the Blackstone River, a river of which powered the many textile mills scattered throughout the city, before the closings of those mills and long before the industrious city fell to hard times, the city thrummed with activity and commerce. It flourished with a healthy population of Catholic, French-Canadian immigrants who were drawn there, mainly, to work in the mills that lined both sides of the snaking River. For both the elite and working class people, social life centered around Woonsocket's churches; they were God-fearing, law-abiding citizens, proud of their heritage and adopted homeland.
When the cross-topped monument was rededicated in May of 1953 to three brothers from Woonsocket who lost their lives in the battles of World War II, a new plaque was placed upon the grey stone base, honoring the veterans of both wars. After the floods of 1954, Cumberland Hill Road was reconfigured, setting it back further from the river, and the unaltered monument would find itself situate still upon the medium, but in what became the northern end of the parking lot of Woonsocket's Fire Station No. 2.
Before the crumbling monument amassed national attention and two days prior to the monument's dedication by a decorated French Marshall, President Harding, in an elaborate ceremony in Washington, D.C. on November 11, 1921 (America's first Armistice Day) paid tribute to the Unknown Soldier with a poignant speech, and a symbolic, pale tomb at Arlington National Cemetery. The tomb: a white marble sarcophagus resting on the grave in which remains of unknown soldiers are buried. At the front elevation of the tomb, as the same was augmented in 1931, encased by the relief of an open laurel wreath are the words "The Unknown Soldier." Inscribed on the Tomb of the Unknowns are wreaths representing major battles of the First World War, and the words:
HERE RESTS IN
KNOWN BUT TO GOD
Harding's speech was no less than a beautifully crafted, emotional work of art. In it, he stated, among other things, "In the death gloom of gas, the bursting of shells and rain of bullets, men face more intimately the great God over all, their souls are aflame, and consciousness expands and hearts are searched. With the din of battle, the glow of conflict, and the supreme trial of courage, come involuntarily the hurried appraisal of life and the contemplation of death’s great mystery. On the threshold of eternity, many a soldier, I can well believe, wondered how his ebbing blood would color the stream of human life, flowing on after his sacrifice…”
Two days later, a Sunday evening, in Woonsocket, at the same monument in the center of the road—to be named that day as Place Jolicoeur (meaning "Place of Happy Hearts")—and after an extravagant parade where thousands of people stood in unbroken line across its route, mills brilliantly illuminated and whistles blowing, the French Marshall Ferdinand Foch and his party descended upon Place Jolicoeur. The band struck up France's national anthem, La Marseillaise, the crowd joined in singing, and Marshal Foch dedicated the rose and chrysanthemum embellished monument, a post at the time, as the spot that would mark a fitting tribute to the fallen soldier.
Foch, the Supreme Allied Commander of all Allied forces in the Great War, the First World War, the war that would end empires, had been beckoned to Woonsocket by its leaders. Foch was the man who led the Allied armies to victory in France's battlefields. He was to tour the nation in the fall of 1921, and his presence in Woonsocket would effectively make the monument an historic relic, regarded as a hard-set portal to Europe's allies.
There is no greater lie than a truth misunderstood.
Ninety-one years later, on April 13, 2012, roughly halfway across the country, at an unlisted street address in Madison, Wisconsin, along the southern shore of Lake Mendota, a letter of complaint to Mr. Leo Fontaine, the Mayor of the cash-strapped city of Woonsocket, was carefully drafted by a staff attorney to the radical group of freethinkers and self-appointed watchdogs of the Constitution's First Amendment, known as the Freedom From Religion Foundation. The nonprofit organization describes itself as a foundation working “to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism, and to promote the constitutional principle of separation between church and state."
The Foundation is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics and skeptics) with over 18,000 members, including notable honorary Board members such as evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, media commentator Ron Reagan, author and former SNL cast member Julia Sweeney, and Mike Newdow, an atheist famously known for challenging the Pledge of Allegiance’s “under God” wording by telling the U.S. Supreme Court, "I don't believe in God. And every school morning my child is asked to stand up, face that flag, put her hand over her heart, and say that her father is wrong.”
Well, who is to say he's right?
The Foundation’s website catalogues the many ways it promotes the constitutional principle under the Establishment Clause, of which they deem as “strict separation between church and state.” Their promotional methods include the filing of demands and lawsuits throughout the country where, they believe, church and state might interact, as if they were ever forbidden to do so.
From the Constitution: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
In other words, desirous of protecting its citizens from religious persecution and dictates, the creators of our Constitution made religious freedom inclusive among the freedoms granted to all citizens, ensuring that neither government nor religion have power over the other, mitigating bloodshed by clash between the two. So does this mean the two entities cannot interact?
No written law, no prohibition, exists in America that has the effect of drawing a strict line of separation between church and state.
"In God We Trust" is still on our money. Prayer is still held in the White House. The Tomb of the Unknowns still says, "KNOWN BUT TO GOD." In Annapolis, MD, the ornate onyx and burnt umber marble sarcophagus of John Paul Jones rests beneath the fresh-floral adorned alter of the U.S. Naval Academy's Chapel.
YES VIRGINIA... THERE IS NO GOD;
HEATHEN'S GREETINGS; and
ENJOY LIFE NOW, THERE IS NO AFTERLIFE
They encourage the use of banners, or memes, that can be found on their website, with epithets such as:
NOTHING FAILS LIKE PRAYER; and
Nobody died for our sins—Jesus Christ is a myth.
In their letter of complaint, the Foundation demanded that the city of Woonsocket remove the monument topped with a cross, the historic relic, the portal to our European allies, on the grounds that its presence on city property violates the Constitution's First Amendment, and the unwritten doctrine of strict separation of church and state.
Without citing a supporting legal statute the Foundation argued that the public display on city property of Christian symbols is unlawful, and blatantly violates the First Amendment by demonstrating a preference for Christianity.
Their co-president, Annie Laurie Gaylor, later said: "We expect to prevail without going to court." And, "Our assumption is that the city does not realize the law."
Two years earlier, the ACLU, representing a Cranston high school student, prevailed in a case against the city of Cranston, RI, forcing the removal of a prayer banner from a public school. The Foundation, for its part, awarded the offended Cranston student a $10,000.00 scholarship for bravery, under its recently established Atheists in Foxholes Support Fund, which will provide funds and assistance to young persons exhibiting bravery, and furthering the Foundation's cause.
Had Mayor Fontaine any idea of the Foundation’s fury, their persistent persecution of all things religious? He would soon come to discover the tenacity of their crusade. But the newly united city, and the support of those across the state and nation, including the Ocean State Atheists, would be a salve.
A half century or so after our founding fathers drafted and signed the Constitution, Frenchman Frédéric Bastiat, a liberal theorist, political economist and pioneer of free market capitalism (who, like the authors of our Constitution, was influenced by the tenets of 18th Century liberalism) wrote his seminal work turned book, The Law. In it, he said: "It is not true that the function of law is to regulate our consciences, our ideas, our wills, our education, our opinions, our work, our trade, our talents or our pleasures. The function of law is to protect the free exercise of these rights, and to prevent any person from interfering with the free exercise of these same rights by any other person."
But when the law is made an instrument of injustice, when words of our founding fathers are gnarled, quoted out of context to further radical agendas, the law becomes perverted, diluted with contentious declarations. It becomes an instrument of discord, partiality, and destruction, a slayer of liberty and property. A symbol of hate.
The truth, though, is that there are extremists on both sides of this matter. There are religious fanatics, as well as atheist zealots. Agitators flying on left and right wings deftly twisting truths—no one is served well by their uncompromising rhetoric.
In 1848, when Bastiat published The Law, he claimed that America, more so than any other country in the world, kept the law within its proper domain. But what will become of the relic of a monument topped with a white cross? How far will WE, the people, be willing to depart from the First Amendment’s intent? How willing are we to destroy or remove or relocate tangible tributes paid to those whose ebbing blood would color the stream of human life, flowing on after his sacrifice?
Every legal case is a new case. And with renewed spirit the city, and its supporters, will join in defending its rights, their rights, against the wrath of the Foundation. The future will tell the rest of the story; the outcome quite possibly dependent upon what we know to be, what is meant to be, what we hope shall be: a just, rational and moral judicial system.
Yet man, in his imperfect embodiment of atoms and molecules, muscle and bone, and perhaps even soul, in his primordial quest to be known and validated, to conquer, slave to his desires, will abide in threatening the rights, freedoms and unity of his country and people in the name of greed, pride, lust and envy.
To the bitter end. The war to end all wars.
And maybe, even, WE the people.
To the bitter end. The war to end all wars.
And maybe, even, WE the people.