ROSELLE PARK, N.J. — The borough council of one New Jersey municipality has resisted a humanist group’s demand to remove what was deemed a religious veterans display from the lawn of the public library, voting instead to keep the figure in its place.
The American Humanist Association (AHA) recently sent a letter to Carl Hokanson, the mayor of Roselle Park, to demand that a silhouette of a soldier kneeling before a cross grave marker be removed. Hokanson had purchased the cutout with his personal money and donated it to the public library as a memorial to fallen soldiers.
“This letter demands that the cross display be removed immediately,” AHA’s correspondence, written by attorney Monica Miller, read. “If not, you are inviting litigation.”
She asserted that the display unlawfully endorses Christianity.
“Though apparently intended as a recognition of fallen military personnel, the display favors and endorses Christianity by suggesting that the government honors the service and sacrifice of Christian soldiers to the exclusion of others,” she stated. “If your government wishes to recognize fallen military personnel through a display, it must do so in a religiously neutral manner.”
AHA said that it received a complaint from local resident Gregory Storey about the silhouette, as he was unhappy that borough officials had not heeded his concerns. According to NJ Advance Media, Storey is married to council member Charlene Storey, who resigned for a time in December to show her opposition to another religious matter.
“While I applaud your clear desire to honor the service, bravery and sacrifice of veterans—to whom we all owe a profound debt—your memorial singles out veterans of the Christian faith with the prominent use of a cross,” Storey wrote to Hokanson. “It ignores veterans of all other religions and those of no religion.”
“While this may be acceptable in a memorial placed on church or other private grounds, it is unacceptable in memorials placed on public property,” he contended. “It singles out one religion and amounts to an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion.”
Hokanson told the Union News that he disagrees that the display is unconstitutional. He believes that it is rather a mission of the Storey’s to eliminate Christian symbols from public life.
“Here we go again,” he said. “As a former Marine, I respect all fallen comrades. The symbol is to recognize that honoring the valor and coverage of those who fought for liberty with a widely recognized symbol of sacrifice does not violate the constitution.”
“The people are tired of [Council member Storey] injecting her poison into this community,” Hokanson said. “She brings in these atheists to sue me. When I support my vets, I support all vets.”
Last Thursday, before a standing room only gathering of citizens on both sides of the issue, the borough council voted 3-2 to keep the display.
AHA is still threatening to sue.
“By voting in favor of this religious display and ignoring the objections of local residents, the Borough of Roselle Park and the mayor are making litigation inevitable,” Miller said in a statement. “The Christian symbolism of the memorial and its placement on public property give the impression of government favoritism toward religion, in violation of the First Amendment.”