|Veterans Memorial Bridge|
Woonsocket, Rhode Island is a city with a great deal of pride. A beautiful city of classic industrial era mills, homes and churches, it has lately fallen on hard economic times, and is currently looking to have the State of Rhode Island take over its finances. At the same time, Woonsocket has found itself embroiled in a First Amendment controversy centered around a mid-sized World War II monument that sports a Christian cross on its summit. The Freedom from Religion Foundation complained, and in response, the city, led by Mayor Leo Fontaine, decided to fight to keep the cross on city property, raising a $15,000 war fund in the process.
In fighting to keep the monument where it is, the argument is being made that the cross is not just a religious symbol, but a secular monument to veterans who fell in war. As such, the monument has historical and secular value, as it is in the interests of the state to support and memorialize our veterans. The Memorial Day parade has been a wonderful tradition in Woonsocket for years, and would provide an excellent means by which to demonstrate their case.
Having read in the Woonsocket Call descriptions of the parades and events that were conducted around the various monuments, I was eager to see what traditions this year's parade would honor. The video below covers the entire parade, but certain things stand out for me. To avoid sitting through the entire forty minute video, I've noted the YouTube time code for the events of note.
04:30- Korean War veteran Bob Duchamp uses his time to give a Christian prayer. Here in lies the problem with trying to say that these memorials don't give preference to a particular religious point of view, in contradiction to the Constitution. Every time Woonsocket flavors their secular event with religion, it's always Christianity.
09:50- The reading of Lincoln's Gettysburg address at the Civil War monument. Abraham Lincoln delivered a campaign address in Woonsocket in 1860, and Lincoln has a special place in Woonsocket's heart as a result.
17:10- Veteran of the Year Thomas Paine, when given a chance to speak, delivers a two minute long prayer. Given that his name sake, the original Thomas Paine, founding father and author of Common Sense was most likely an atheist, I can't help but feel a little disappointed.
19:14- Three members of the Air Force ROTC drop flowers off the Veterans Memorial Bridge and into the river to commemorate those who lost their lives at sea. This tradition goes back a long way in Woonsocket, and is quite moving.
31:08- Mayor Fontaine's speech is quite good. To my mind, despite differences in our perspectives, Mayor Fontaine seems a good man, and a hard working mayor.
38:50- The two completely crazy, Christian themed floats drift by. The first from an elder care facility, the second featuring two white crosses (in support of the monument at Jolicoeur Place?) This was of course followed by a Christian motorcycle club. This ended the parade with a message that should be clear to non-Christian residents; Patriotism equals Christianity.
I love Woonsocket. I want them to get through these hard times and become that great city they once were once again. But they can't have it both ways. They can't maintain that the cross is a secular symbol on the one hand, not favoring any religion, but at the same time flaunt their Christianity at large, public and secular events. Not showing favoritism to any one religion means exactly that: not showing favoritism.