RAVENSWOOD, W.V. — The family of a late school teacher has removed several crosses from a memorial erected in her honor at a local middle school after a prominent atheist activist organization asserted that their presence was unconstitutional.
Joanne Christy worked as a teacher at Ravenswood Middle School for two decades until she died in a car accident in 2004. Following her passing, family and friends of Christy created a memorial garden as a tribute near one of the entrances to the school.
“There’s so many kids that came through this school that were affected by her death—that were affected by her teachings—and now we’re just trying to keep her memory alive here,” family friend Tracie Sadecky told WSAZ-TV.
But a parent of a student recently contacted the Madison, Wisc.-based Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) to lodge a complaint against some of the images used in the memorial, namely the inclusion of crosses and engravings meant to depict angels. One of the crosses featured two Scriptures: Romans 5:1 (“Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”) and Hebrews 11:1 (“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”).
“She collected [crosses],” Sadecky explained. “She had them in her classroom. She had them in her house, so it’s something we thought would be a great addition.”
However, due to the complaint, FFRF sent a letter to the Jackson County School Board last month, asking that the crosses be removed. It said that while the complainant, whose name the organization did not disclose, was not aware that the display was part of a memorial to a deceased teacher, the symbols and biblical text were nonetheless problematic.
“The religious significance of the Latin cross in unambiguous and indisputable. … Bible verses also obviously have religious significance, and it is improper for a public school to display passages from a religion’s holy book as part of a garden display,” the letter, written by staff attorney Patrick Elliott, asserted. “A reasonable student would view the school’s display of Latin crosses and New Testament passages as a clear endorsement of Christianity by the school.”
“Whatever the purpose of the school’s garden display, that purpose can be achieved without the use of sectarian religious symbols and biblical passages,” he continued.
The family then removed the crosses, and on Thursday, the Jackson County School Board voted on whether or not the angels would remain. A number of community members attended to speak out in support of leaving the Christian symbols in the display despite atheist demands.
“The matter is certainly upsetting to a community which holds strong convictions in matters of faith,” Superintendent Blaine Hess said in a statement prior to the meeting. “The complaint has been reviewed and initial direction has been provided to the schools involved, which will move toward compliance with rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court.”
The board voted to allow the angel engravings to remain, but agreed that the crosses could not be a part of the display.
Local television station WSAV-TV noted that FFRF did not take issue with the school’s mascot being the devil.