SALEM, Ore. — A prominent professing atheist organization is seeking the removal of roadside cross memorial in Oregon, which it states is an unconstitutional government endorsement of Christianity because it sits on public property.
The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) recently sent a letter to the mayor of Salem to advise that it had received a complaint about the cross off Kuebler Boulevard. It said at the time that it did not know the origin of the display.
“It is blatantly unconstitutional for the City of Salem to display a patently religious symbol like a Christian cross on a public roadside,” attorney Rebecca Markert wrote. “The cross … unabashedly creates the perception of government endorsement of Christianity.”
“It conveys the message to the 23% of Americans who are not religious that they are not ‘favored members of the political community,'” she continued. “The cross has an exclusionary effect, making non-Christian and non-believing residents of Oregon into political outsiders.”
FFRF requested that the cross be moved to private property instead.
This week, the mayor of Salem told reporters that the cross is actually a memorial to a mother who was killed in a car crash at the location, and had been placed by her children. The immediate area around the cross, which is covered in mulch, stones and flowers, is maintained by the family.
“We had a woman killed there in an accident 10 or 12 years ago,” Mayor Chuck Bennett told television station KATU. “Her children wanted to put up a memorial to her, did and have maintained it ever since.”
While he acknowledged that the memorial is on a public right-of-way, Bennett said that he doesn’t see the cross as serving as a government endorsement of Christianity.
“It’s an endorsement of a family’s love for their mother and their sadness at her loss and their desire to commemorate her memory,” he stated.
However, Cheryl Kolbe, the Portland-area leader of FFRF, asserted that the intention of the cross does not matter and that it is still unconstitutional.
“This is not the same as a very recent car accident where somebody put some flowers or whatever or even a cross on the side of the road a week or two,” she told the television station. “The cross dramatically conveys a message of governmental support for Christianity whatever the intention of the display may be.”
“I don’t like seeing Christian symbols or any religious symbols on public land,” Kolbe stated. “They’re free to move it to private land.”
The City is looking into the matter, but has not yet indicated one way or the other where it stands on the issue.
As previously reported, two years ago, the family of a late school teacher removed several crosses from a memorial erected in her honor at a West Virginia middle school after FFRF likewise asserted that the display would be seen as the school endorsing Christianity.
“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.
“She collected [crosses],” she explained. “She had them in her classroom. She had them in her house, so it’s something we thought would be a great addition.”