Friday, July 13, 2012

A Cross Grows in Providence

Christine Eldridge, my good friend and vice president of Humanists of Rhode Island posted on our private Facebook discussion page that she had noticed a cross on a median strip in Providence, which is public land. I will confess that I was hesitant to get involved in yet another religious display case. For one thing, Humanists of Rhode Island is a very busy group. We volunteer for Habitat for Humanity every month, clean our Adopt-A-Highway at least four times a year, participate in park clean-ups and blood drives, and get involved in the legislative process, especially around issues such as church/state separation, marriage equality and reproductive rights. But after Tangie, another member of our group, pointed out the same cross, I decided to have a look. Truthfully, I was not looking for trouble...

Everyone in Rhode Island was caught by surprise when the letter sent by the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) to Mayor Leo Fontaine of Woonsocket requesting that a war memorial topped with a Latin cross be moved from public land was made public. Woonsocket, a mostly conservative, mostly Catholic and economically depressed old mill town, reacted strongly to the request. Rather than acquiesce, the Mayor and a sizable number of citizens drew a line in the sand defending the cross. A large rally was held that featured a local right wing talk radio personality and Bishop Thomas Tobin, head of the Catholic Providence Diocese. A connection was made at that rally between the FFRF’s request to remove the cross and the ACLU’s earlier lawsuit over a prayer on the wall of Cranston West High School, a lawsuit won by my niece, Jessica Ahlquist.

Bishop Tobin made the connection between the two events, hinting at a sinister secular humanist conspiracy, even though it was well publicized that the FFRF sent their letter to Mayor Fontaine on behalf of an anonymous Woonsocket resident, with no known relationship to the earlier case. When I went to Woonsocket to see the cross for myself and photograph it, I overheard a conversation between two men who were theorizing that my niece and I were driving around Rhode Island looking for church/state violations to complain about, the motive being the lucrative cash such lawsuits inevitably bring. Had these men bothered to inform themselves, they would have known that my niece was awarded $25.00 in damages, which barely counts as gas money.

Humanists of Rhode Island, of which I am currently president, could not reach a consensus on what position to take on the Woonsocket Cross, though I have blogged extensively on the history of the monument and am on record as saying that I think it should be moved to private land, not necessarily for legal reasons, but for reasons of history and aesthetics. So, though I follow the case with some interest, my group and my family are in no way involved in the issue of the Woonsocket Cross.

I had this in mind on Monday, June 18th, as I walked across the city, camera in hand, to take a look at what would soon be known as the Providence Cross, located near the Coca-Cola factory about a mile from the Providence Place mall downtown. The cross was positioned in the center of a well-maintained median strip, surrounded by flowers, across the street from a car wash/gas station. The cross stood between four and five feet tall, on both sides were painted the words “GOD BLESS AMERICA” and it was adorned with two tiny American flags, as if Jesus were holding them when he was crucified. The cross struck me as rather tacky, unlike the one in Woonsocket, which, though time worn and falling apart, has a certain simplicity and dignity to it.

The cross in Providence was not erected anywhere near a memorial to veterans, though there is a veteran’s memorial on another median strip a block or two away. This cross though, was unrelated to any monument, being too far away and too recent to be part of that display. I also checked to make sure that the cross was not placed there to commemorate someone who might have died in a traffic accident or a crime. These simple roadside markers, erected by families and friends as part of a mourning process, do not strike me as being a government endorsement of religion, and I see many such markers with no religious symbolism at all.

The cross was, to my eye, a privately constructed, permanent display erected by someone wishing to proselytize their religious views on public land. It seemed to me that this cross violated the First Amendment, as it gave the appearance that the City of Providence was endorsing a particular religious viewpoint, Christianity, over others. I was sure, in my naivete, that a simple letter to Mayor Angel Taveras of Providence, would be all it would take to see the cross moved to private property.

I went home and wrote my letter. In writing the letter I was very much aware of some of the criticisms launched at both the ACLU and the FFRF in dealing with the issues I described near the beginning of this piece. Members of the school board in Cranston claimed to be shocked when they received the letter from the ACLU threatening legal action if the prayer was not removed from the wall of the high school. Many wanted to know why the complaint came from an anonymous parent (my niece was not yet deeply involved in the issue). Later, when the FFRF sent a letter to the Mayor of Woonsocket, many were upset that the letter was written on behalf of an unidentified citizen of Woonsocket. Of course, people choose to be anonymous because they fear the insults, threats and backlash from their community, and part of the resentment on the part of those who complain about the anonymity is that they have no local targets upon whom to focus their wrath.

But the case in Woonsocket had engendered other complaints. They wanted to know why an “outside group” from Wisconsin thought they had the right to tell people in Woonsocket where to put their war memorials. Also, those in favor of the cross in Woonsocket claimed that they supported the monument not necessarily because it was a religious symbol, but because the cross in this case honored veterans. Supporters of the cross try, and are still trying, to frame that battle as being between atheists and veterans, when it is actually between those who believe in separation of church and state and those who would conflate the two.

Another issue we were dealing with was a move by the State Assembly to protect the monument in Woonsocket with some late night legislative mumbo-jumbo. On the last night of the legislative session, one hour before the State Assembly closed for the summer, a bill was passed that set up a special committee with the power to give any monument or artifact erected on public land before 2012 protection from First Amendment challenges, despite and religious symbolism. This ridiculous bill not only passed the assembly, Governor Lincoln Chafee allowed it to become law without his signature.

In the letter, which I crafted with much help from many members of the Humanists of Rhode Island, but especially Bill Santagata, a self-described “law geek” I made the following request, mindful of the recent events in Rhode Island concerning crosses on public land:
We respectfully ask that this cross be removed from public land. We do so as a local group, without the involvement of the ACLU, or the Freedom from Religion Foundation, or any other national group because we feel that as Rhode Islanders that we can deal with this matter “in house” as it were. We do not see the need for making a gigantic case out of this issue. The cross in question was not erected years ago, is not a tribute to fallen soldiers, and is not sanctioned by the city. The removal of this cross should really be no big deal.
Also, at the suggestion of Bill Santagata, we included the following language:
Because the United States Constitution requires government to treat all religious viewpoints equally, failure to remove the cross indicates that the City of Providence intends to administer this median as a limited public forum whereby all religiously themed groups will have equal space and access. Should the cross not be removed, Humanists of Rhode Island plans to erect an icon of similar size and visibility on the median, and will vigorously defend other religious groups who wish to do the same.

Naturally, the City will be responsible for ensuring a fair and equal distribution of land area so that no one religion dominates, and for investigating and prosecuting any instances of vandalism that may hinder the free speech and free exercise rights of unpopular religious groups.
I made sure that the letter was not an anonymous complaint, as my name was clearly on it. By not asking for the assistance of any national groups I hoped to make it clear that we were acting as a local group, and dealing with this as a local issue. I was careful to point out that we were acting simply on Constitutional grounds. This was not an attempt to attack veterans, or to attack deeply help religious beliefs. We were simply asserting our rights under the Constitution. The letter, approved by our group, was mailed out that evening.

Ten days later, with no response from the Mayor’s office, I put the letter up on our Humanists of Rhode Island website/blog, along with the pictures I had taken of the cross. That same morning I cross-posted the piece on RI, a progressive political blog I occasionally write for on secular and religious issues. Then I went about my day, unaware of the media frenzy I had just unleashed.

I was a on a two hour drive from Providence, helping my son find an apartment in Amherst, Massachusetts when my phone rang. On the phone was a reporter for the local NBC TV affiliate, wanting to interview me about the cross in Providence. I told him it was unlikely that I would be back before midnight. He was not happy. The reporters from the local ABC and CBS/FOX affiliates were not happy either. Neither were the reporters from the local newspaper or the talk radio stations. My phone was dying. Normally it could last three days on a charge, now it was minutes away from being dead.

I alerted the members of my group back in Rhode Island, as best I could. It would be up to them to handle the media, and fortunately they were more than up to the task. That night, with the help of Debbie Flitman, Adam Miner stepped up as spokesman for our group, appearing on the local ABC affiliate to state our position clearly and articulately. The next morning he repeated the performance on a conservative news radio station. There was a lot of positive response to this, and of course just as much trollish idiocy.

Meanwhile, the reporters covering the story unearthed a lot of interesting information about the cross. According to Peter Montequila, he and his family erected the cross sometime before Memorial Day. The Montequila family owns Finest Car Wash and a gas station across the street from where the cross was placed. It turns out that the Montequila family had maintained the median strip for years, going so far as to purchase a lawn mower to keep the grass trim and to install sprinklers on the median to keep the grass watered. Flowers were planted regularly. In truth, it is a beautifully maintained median strip, and a real gift to the City of Providence. But what about the cross?

The cross was erected “to show support for the Woonsocket war memorial recently challenged by a Wisconsin Atheist group for bearing a cross” according to Montequila on 630AM-WPRO. Or, it was erected because “it would be a nice gesture because of Fourth of July coming up to put the monument up in respect to our fallen soldiers, our fallen military people.” Then again, Tatiana Pina of the Providence Journal reported that the cross was erected the week before Memorial Day, so perhaps it was erected to celebrate that holiday.

Montequila seems like an opinionated man, embodying the true spirit of American individualism. On the local NBC affiliate he said, “This is America last time I checked and everybody has a right to their own opinion. I have my right to an opinion and my opinion is God Bless America.” Montequila claimed that he wanted his cross to be something to bring people together. “I think that cross out there brings people together, especially in the state that we are in, with the economy the way it is, we want to see the people rally around something that they can put their hearts into.”

Then again, Montequila is not very fond of non-believers. On ABC6 Montequila said about atheists,“If it really offends them, you know what? Don't drive down the street, or move someplace else or get out of the state, that's how I feel."

I used the above quotes in a piece I wrote for RI Future, pointing out that the cross was not truly about veterans or patriotism or any of the other things Montequila claimed it to be. It was about bigotry towards the non-religious. The message of the cross, to my mind, was simple:
If you don’t believe in our particular kind of God, we don’t want you in Providence.
I wrote the second piece because the spokesman for Mayor Taveras said that the Mayor had no intention of asking the owners of the car wash to remove the cross from the median. In his opinion the cross on public land did not violate the Constitution, which is true, I thought, if the city sponsored Adopt-A-Spot program allowed any group to adopt public land and construct any kind of message they wanted to. We had filed a Freedom of Information Act claim for any documents relating to Finest Car Wash and the city’s Adopt-A-Spot program, but since the cross was removed, we canceled the request.

But while the cross was still up, we were asked by the media, what kind of display would we be likely to construct, if it came to that? In truth, we had no idea. I had actually hoped it would not go so far. I figured that the city would realize that allowing anyone to adopt a piece of public land merely to erect some message, be it secular, religious or even commercial, was opening up a terrible can of worms. Still, our group entered the early discussion phase of trying to decide just what we wanted to build if we had to. We were considering a Happy Humanist, a Darwin Fish, or some kind of secular, patriotic display. But we never got past the discussion phase.

On the Internet, things got dark. Insults were hurled at me and my family. My niece was dragged into virtually every story that ran about the cross, though she had absolutely nothing to do with it, other than being related to me. One reporter actually told me that if I did not appear on camera, he would have no choice but to use stock footage of Jessica in his coverage, despite my protests. Because I was out of town I could not accommodate him, and to be sure a shot of my niece was included in his television report.

Bill Santagata, who I mentioned earlier, wrote a letter to the Providence Journal defending and clarifying our position. He also defended his letter in the online Providence Journal forum, which I think goes above and beyond the call of duty. His efforts even persuaded a few people that our position was essentially correct. Tangie, contributed a piece to GoLocal Providence, after writing to an editor there to correct some misinformation he was spreading. We were girding ourselves for a long, drawn-out process, even though, as I expressed from the first in my letter to the mayor, the whole issue should really be “no big deal.”

Then, on Friday morning, July 6th, it was over. Mayor Taveras visited Finest Car Wash and though no one knows what was actually said beside Peter Montequila and the Mayor, by the end of the day the cross was moved to a prominent spot at the gas station, on private property. Though Bob Plain at RI Future reported on the cross being moved Friday evening, it took the local media four days to catch up, and there was another round of television, newspaper and radio coverage.

I said, in the Providence Journal, that moving the cross was “…the best possible solution. We are really happy it was resolved this way… We thank the mayor, and we thank Finest Car Wash for doing it. I don’t know how they feel about it, but what they did was the right thing to do.”

Later, I was on a local cable access show here in Rhode Island called Chapter & Verse. As you can probably tell from the title, Chapter & Verse is a conservative evangelical show, but the host is extremely pleasant and very interested in opposing points of view. I was on with Donald Anderson, who heads up the Rhode Island Council of Churches, a Baptist Minister and a big supporter of church/state separation and my niece’s case. Don expressed his feeling that the use of the cross on the median strip was deeply troubling to him. He takes the symbolism of the cross very seriously, as his religion dictates, and the treatment of this symbol in so cavalier a fashion demonstrated a lack of respect for his beliefs.

As if to prove Donald Anderson’s point, Ron St. Pierre, one of Rhode Island’s conservative talk radio personalities wrote the following (italics in original, and some corrections made):
Some may say the Montaquilas caved to the demands of Humanists [of] Rhode Island. I don’t think that’s the case. I think they did intend to honor veterans with the cross but their real motive was to be a major burr under the saddle of FREEDOM FROM RELIGION [Foundation], Humanists [of] Rhode Island and Steven Ahlquist.

Mission accomplished.  
Though I would not pretend to take St. Pierre’s word as authoritative, I think this analysis gets at the real reason the Providence Cross was erected. The cross was put up not out of any deeply held religious beliefs, not out of deep respect for veterans, not for the holidays, not for any reason other than to stir up a bit of controversy. I would disagree that the cross was some sort of “major burr” under my saddle. It was, as I said all along, “no big deal.”


  1. Thank you for the cogent and informative summary, Steve. I'm glad you and your allies are working in the way you do to make your part of RI a little more mindful of SOCAS, and a little more thoughtful about terms of civic engagement.

  2. Thanks, Zachary. We're just trying to act on our beliefs in the best way we can.

  3. I'll help build a big Atheist "A" that we can post on the same roadway. Then we can watch as the bigots tear it down. Should be fun!