ROSELLE PARK, N.J. — A New Jersey borough has agreed not to restore what was deemed a religious veterans display to the lawn of the public library in order to settle a lawsuit filed by a nationally-recognized humanist organization.
On May 4, Roselle Park council members voted to approve Resolution 142-17, “Authorizing a Settlement Agreement in the Matter of American Humanist Association v. Borough of Roselle Park.”
“This lawsuit was about ensuring that the government must refrain from … religious favoritism, and we’re glad that in the end the Constitution prevailed,” David Niose, the director of the American Humanist Association’s (AHA) Appignani Legal Center, asserted in a statement announcing the settlement on Thursday.
AHA’s motto is “Good Without a God,” and describes humanism as “a progressive philosophy of life that, without theism and other supernatural beliefs, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.”
As previously reported, AHA sent a letter last summer to Mayor Carl Hokanson 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.
“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,” the correspondence, written by attorney Monica Miller, read. “If your government wishes to recognize fallen military personnel through a display, it must do so in a religiously neutral manner.”
AHA threatened litigation if its demands for removal were not met.
It advised that the organization had 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 2015 to show her opposition to another religious matter.
“While this may be acceptable in a memorial placed on church or other private grounds, it is unacceptable in memorials placed on public property,” Storey wrote to Hokanson. “It singles out one religion and amounts to an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion.”
Hokanson disagreed. He opined to the Union News that it is rather a mission of the Storeys 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 stated. “She brings in these atheists to sue me. When I support my vets, I support all vets.”
In September, AHA followed through with its threat, suing Roselle Park leadership in an effort to obtain a permanent injunction against the display, as well as nominal damages for the borough’s alleged violation of the “separation of Church and State” and the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
Shortly thereafter, council members voted 5-0 to remove the silhouette. This month, in order to settle the lawsuit, it was agreed not to restore the memorial or erect any similar displays in the future.
Roselle Park officials have not commented on the settlement.
As previously reported, in a recent dissenting opinion in a New Mexico Ten Commandments case, 10th Circuit Court of Appeals Judges Paul Kelly, Jr. and Chief Judge Timothy Tymkovich noted that the Establishment Clause is being interpreted incorrectly and not in “the historical understanding of an ‘establishment of religion,’ and thus with what the First Amendment actually prohibits.”
They explained that “[e]stablishment was … the norm in the American Colonies. Exclusive Anglican establishments reigned in the southern states, whereas localized Puritan establishments were the norm in New England, except in Rhode Island.”
This began in Europe, “the continent of origin for most American colonists,” Kelly outlined. “[E]ach country had long established its own state church—a generalized version of cuius regio, eius religio—over which each government exercised varying degrees of control. Germany and Scandinavia had official Lutheran establishments; Holland, a Reformed state church; France, the Gallican Catholic Church; Ireland, the Church of Ireland; Scotland, the Church of Scotland; and so on.”
Therefore, the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution regarding “respecting an establishment” only referred to showing favoritism to one state establishment over another, and solely applied to the federal government.
“From the words of the text, though, two conclusions are relatively clear: first, the provision originally limited the federal government and not the states, many of which continued to support established churches; and second, the limitation respected only an actual ‘establishment of religion,’” the federal judges outlined.