There's a roadside memorial in the town where I live (Salem, Oregon) that features a four-foot cross. I have no problem with temporary displays of grief after someone has been killed in a traffic accident, but this memorial has been on Kuebler Boulevard for at least ten years.
That's way too long. It needs to go.
So says the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which has written Salem Mayor Chuck Bennett, citing legal decisions that a cross on public property is unconstitutional.
Download FFRF letter to Mayor Bennett
Joe Douglass, a reporter for Portland's KATU television station, filed a story about the cross yesterday: "Group demands Salem remove roadside cross memorializing woman who died in crash years ago."
SALEM, Ore. — A roadside cross memorializing a mother who died in a car crash years ago is at the center of a battle brewing over the separation of church and state in Salem.
A group called the Freedom From Religion Foundation is demanding the city remove it.
Salem Mayor Chuck Bennett said Tuesday that the city is reviewing the situation and that it's the first time they've received a complaint about the memorial.
Tucked away in some grass off Kuebler Boulevard near Stroh Lane is a nearly 4-foot tall cross sitting on a heart-shaped piece of land.
Cheryl Kolbe told KATU it's been there for at least a dozen years.
"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," said Kolbe. "The cross dramatically conveys a message of governmental support for Christianity whatever the intention of the display may be."
Kolbe is the Portland area chapter president for the Freedom From Religion Foundation based in Wisconsin.
About two weeks ago, a lawyer for the organization sent a letter to Bennett demanding the memorial be removed, saying someone in the area complained.
"The government cannot be seen as endorsing any religion," said Kolbe. "The courts have ruled consistently that a cross does represent Christianity and gives the impression of promoting Christianity over other religions or non-religion."
Here's the KATU televised version of the story:
A post about the roadside memorial story on the KATU Facebook page has gotten a heck of a lot of attention: over 2,100 reactions; 1,000 + comments; 635 shares.
People feel strongly about the cross issue. Since most people in this country are Christian, it isn't surprising that most of the commenters have a "this is no big deal; leave the cross where it is" attitude.
Well, I wonder if they'd feel the same way if governments allowed Satanic symbols on public property for over a decade. Or an Islamic symbol. Where do we draw the line once governments start allowing people to put up religious memorials for reasons they feel strongly about?
In the video Mayor Bennett says the cross isn't promoting Christianity. But this doesn't make sense, since the City of Salem is allowing a four-foot Christian cross on a public right of way.
Look, I can understand why grieving friends and relatives may want to put some flowers at the spot someone died in a traffic accident. This should be temporary, though. Like a week or two.
After that, a memorial should be on private property. Public property shouldn't be used for longstanding private displays of religiosity.
A New York Times piece had pro and con arguments about roadside memorials. Given my atheist approach to life, naturally I liked this man's reasoning.
Robert Tiernan is a lawyer in Colorado. Nine years ago, he represented a person accused of illegally removing a roadside memorial. His client was acquitted.
They Are Unconstitutional and a Hazard
There are three reasons why privately placed roadside memorials should not be allowed.
First, they constitute the taking of public property for private purposes.
Second, they invariably include Christian crosses and other religious symbols. This violates the constitutional principle of separation of church and state because public facilities are being used to promote religion.
Third, they are a distraction and, therefore, dangerous to the motoring public. Many of these memorials are on median strips along the highway or are just off the shoulder. They are often elaborate and include symbols that are anchored into the ground. If a motorist happens to lose control of his car and hits one of these displays, it could result in serious injury or death.
Furthermore, the fact that grieving family and friends frequently visit these memorials to leave flowers and to pray presents an additional danger. In the case I handled, the memorial was in the “V” of an interstate off-ramp. When mourners slowed down to pull off and visit the site, it created a serious traffic hazard.
Many states, including Colorado and Wyoming, have programs designed to commemorate victims of traffic accidents that don’t involve religious symbols or displays that are distracting. This is a better alternative than allowing citizens to erect their own shrines.