Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Mayor Fontaine's State of the Cross Address

The Woonsocket Cross, shiny and new
Mayor Leo Fontaine's August 3rd press conference, marketed as a formal response to the Freedom from Religion Foundation's letter demanding the removal of a large cross from public land did not advance the case in any significant way, and serves as a retrenchment of positions on both sides. Fontaine mentioned a second letter from the FFRF, this one dated June 25th, which once again requested a formal, legal reply to their first letter on the subject from April 13th, when this latest constitutional dust-up began.

Fontaine seemed somewhat surprised that the FFRF was in need of further reply. His attitude was that his brief on air-debate with FFRF co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor on Fox News and the subsequent May 2nd rally held in support of the cross was answer enough. Apparently the FFRF lawyers wanted something in print, like a letter. A letter seems so quaint these days that Mayor Fontaine let loose his inner artist and presented the world premiere of a movie he "put together" himself.

The movie is presented as a "...documentary on the history of 'Place Jolicoeur'" and is quite good, not only as a history of the life, death and service of the men honored by the memorial, but also as patriotic propaganda. The movie appropriates music from Steven Spielberg's 1998 Saving Private Ryan and Mayor Fontaine draws parallel's in his speech between that movie and the plight of the Gagne brothers, all three of whom died in service during WWII. In the Spielberg movie a band of soldiers lead by Tom Hanks are ordered to retrieve the eponymous Sgt. Ryan from behind enemy lines because his brothers have both been killed during the war. Fontaine's movie has a less happy ending because Bernadette Gagne lost all three of her sons.

I believe that the presentation of a short documentary film, prepared by the mayor of a city, is unique in the history of church/state separation litigation. The mayor's extensive research, (he acknowledges the help he received from family and friends) is amazing. Together he and his researchers read through decades of microfiche copies of the Woonsocket Call newspaper looking for references to Place Jolicoeur, the Gagne Brothers, and the construction of the cross. Meanwhile, Joseph S. Larisa, Jr., the mayor's lawyer, researched the constitutional aspects of the case.

Mayor Fontaine's city is in deep financial trouble. No choices made by Fontaine or the City Council to remedy the city's problems are going to be popular. In many ways, the FFRF's letter presented a golden opportunity to rally the citizenry against a common enemy, galvanizing support for the mayor. This political capital, the mayor hopes, will allow him the leeway to make difficult decisions without undue political cost. 

This is, in my opinion, a dangerous strategy. What the Mayor is trying to do is frame this debate not as a church/state separation issue, but as an atheists versus veterans issue, and this is a terrible misconstruction. Atheists are not some group opposed to veterans and veteran's rights. Atheists are not searching through graveyards, demanding the removal of religious symbolism there. Atheists, by and large, support our veterans. In fact, there are well established groups of atheist veterans.

By not acknowledging the very real and legitimate concerns of Woonsocket's non-believing population in regards to the cross on public land, Mayor Fontaine is encouraging an atmosphere of prejudice and intimidation. By Fontaine's estimation, a thousand crosses have sprung up on the front lawns of property owners through Woonsocket and the state in support of the Woonsocket Cross. At the same time, Fontaine and his lawyer publicly express doubt about the existence of the citizen of Woonsocket who contacted the FFRF in the first place.

Much has been made of the fact that this Woonsocket resident has chosen to remain anonymous. The community, it seems, is eager to learn the identity of the person who lodged the complaint, and there is much anger being directed at the unknown person. Given the abuse and death threats suffered by Jessica Ahlquist in Cranston, is there any wonder that someone in a similar position would want to conceal their identity? With a thousand crosses of support decorating the lawns of their neighbors, who would be brave enough to risk the ire of their community?

Mayor Fontaine, by accident or design, has created an environment in his city that is hostile to those who might support the removal of the cross from Place Jolicoeur. He has galvanized support for his administration at the cost of the safety for a small minority. He has engendered an atmosphere of disrespect and hostility towards those who feel differently from the Christian majority.

One last thing: The Woonsocket Cross received a facelift, and it looks great, possibly better than it looked when it first went up. The cross has been repainted, the masonry patched, and resealed, the plaques polished and re-installed. This, along with the landscaping around the little patch of land, has completely re-invigorated the monument.

1 comment:

  1. I think you're being too hard on the mayor. I watched the press conference and I did not hear him bash atheists. He criticized the Freedom From Religion Foundation, making his remarks specific to that group and not casting a wide net against atheists as a whole.

    I think people do have a right to be upset with them and as a matter of law I sincerely believe that the FFRF is just not right on this one.

    Other than the gentleman at the end saying that majority should always rule despite "godless atheists" wishes (and granted, the mayor or the lawyer should have corrected him on that), the whole press conference was even-headed and respectful, especially in contrast to the many school committee meetings in Cranston.